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Libya official, in Tunisia, may have defected

The nation's top oil official, Shukri Ghanem, is visiting the neighboring country on business, Libya says. But unconfirmed reports suggest he is the latest high-ranking official to abandon Moammar Kadafi's government.

May 17, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Shukri Ghanem, shown in 2008 when he was Libya's prime minister, is the current head of the nation's National Oil Corp.
Shukri Ghanem, shown in 2008 when he was Libya's prime minister, is… (Sabri Elmhedwi, European…)

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — Mystery surrounded the status Tuesday of Libya's top oil official, Shukri Ghanem, who was in neighboring Tunisia on what authorities in Tripoli called a business trip, but unconfirmed reports suggested that he may be the latest defector from Moammar Kadafi's embattled government.

Tunisian authorities did not describe Ghanem's land arrival as a defection. And a Libyan government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said Ghanem, head of Libya's National Oil Corp., was "on official business." Ibrahim spoke hurriedly in a Tripoli hotel lobby and didn't address the issue in any news briefing. "We don't have enough information," he said.

Asked earlier by another reporter whether Ghanem had defected, Ibrahim indicated that the government was not overly concerned about the prospect. "If he did, this is his business," he said.

If the U.S.-educated Ghanem has defected, he would be another in a series of high-ranking Libyan officials to abandon Kadafi's government. His defection could also bolster the impression painted by rebels and their allies that the regime is crumbling after more than four decades in power, an assertion rejected by government officials.

Ghanem, Libya's former prime minister, heads the nation's top income-generating sector. Libya is one of Africa's largest oil producers, but the warfare that erupted three months ago after a series of anti-Kadafi protests and a government crackdown has cut most production and exports. The nation is facing a severe shortage of gasoline, resulting in huge lines at gas stations.

Several defectors, including former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil and ex-Interior Minister Abdul Fatah Younis, have assumed high positions in the rebel leadership based in the eastern city of Benghazi. Former Foreign Minister Musa Kusa, a longtime Kadafi confidant and ex-spy chief, has also left the government.

A number of prominent diplomats have resigned their posts, notably Ali Abdessalam Treki, another former Libyan foreign minister and ex-United Nations General Assembly president.

The exodus has left hard feelings in Tripoli, where the government describes former ministers who have joined the rebels as corrupt and incompetent.

Ibrahim, the government spokesman, alleged that a North Atlantic Treaty Organization strike early Tuesday struck a government ministry that contained evidence of wrongdoing by defectors now working with the rebels. The dossiers survived the bombing and would be available for Western governments to review, Ibrahim said.

Elsewhere, news agencies indicated that fighting continued Tuesday in two heavily contested western regions: the port city of Misurata, which is largely under rebel control, and the rugged mountain zone along the Tunisian border. Rebels control much of eastern Libya, while Kadafi retains power in Tripoli and in much of the west.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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