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Shukri Ghanem, Chairman of Libya's National Oil Corporation, has defected.
Shukri Ghanem, Chairman of Libya's National Oil Corporation, has defected.
Image: Patricio Realpe/AP/Press Association Images

Libyan oil minister defects to Tunisia

Shukri Ghanem has become one of the most prominent members of Gaddafi’s government to abandon the regime after crossing the border into neighbouring Tunisia.
May 18th 2011, 10:11 AM 166 0

ANOTHER HIGH-RANKING Libyan official has defected and fled the country amid a widening NATO campaign of bombings as well as leafletting and other psychological warfare to persuade Muammar Gaddafi’s troops to stop fighting.

Shukri Ghanem, the Libyan oil minister and head of the National Oil Company, crossed into neighbouring Tunisia by road on Monday, according to a Tunisian security official and Abdel Moneim al-Houni, a former Libyan Arab League representative who was among the first wave of Libyan diplomats to defect.

Internal strife

The defections suggest Gaddafi’s political structure is fraying, but it’s unclear whether there is enough internal strife to seriously undermine his ability to fight rebel forces as NATO airstrikes pound Libyan military targets. Gaddafi appears to retain the backing of his core of military commanders.

Still, support for Gaddafi seems to be waning in the capital, Tripoli. Pro-regime demonstrations are sparsely attended, even when heavily advertised in advance.

And rebel forces have reported some gains in recent days. In Misrata, the main battleground in western Libya, opposition fighters claim they have driven back government troops from key access points and tried to push pro-Gaddafi gunners out of rocket range for the city.

NATO said Tuesday it would step up psychological warfare operations to try to persuade troops loyal to Gaddafi to abandon the fight.

Wing Commnader Mike Bracken, speaking in Naples, Italy, said NATO planes have been dropping leaflets and broadcasting messages to Libyan forces urging them “to return to their barracks and homes.”

Bracken said the messages also have advised pro-regime troops “to move away from any military equipment” that could be targeted by NATO’s strike aircraft.

He did not provide further details on the psychological operations. But the US has been using a specially modified Air Force C-130 transport to broadcast messages to Libyan forces in AM, FM, high-frequency radio, TV and military communications bands.

NATO is operating under a UN Security Council mandate to maintain a no-fly zone and to take other actions to protect civilians from attack by Gaddafi’s forces. In recent days, NATO attacks have concentrated on military and logistics hubs in Tripoli.

British-led bombing

On Monday night, British aircraft bombed the intelligence agency building in the capital as well as a training base for bodyguards protecting members of Gaddafi’s regime, according to Britain’s Ministry of Defence.

Major General John Lorimer said the targets were “at the heart of the apparatus used by the regime to brutalise the civilian population.”

One of the buildings hit overnight was used by the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for internal security. Another building belonging to an anti-corruption commission was also bombed. Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim suggested that the ministry was targeted because it contained files on corruption cases against senior members of the Benghazi-based rebel leadership.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Tuesday that fighting in Misrata and other cities is denying medical aid to civilians and causing casualties among health personnel. It cited reports by the Libyan Red Crescent that three of its ambulances were hit over the past four days. A nurse was killed and a patient and three volunteers were wounded, it said.

Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya for more than 40 years, has been using his military and militias to try to put down an uprising that began in February. The protests are aimed at ousting him from power.

Where is Gaddafi?

Although Gaddafi appears from time to time on state-run television and radio, his whereabouts are a mystery.

“We do not know where Gaddafi is,” said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Fattini, meeting Tuesday in Rome with Nabil Elaraby, the new secretary-general of the Arab League. “We heard some rumors about Gaddafi leaving Tripoli, taking refuge outside of the city, but we had no confirmation at all.”

Government officials were not immediately available to comment on the oil minister’s defection. Ghanem is one of the most prominent members of Gaddafi’s government to abandon the regime.

Others who have defected include Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, one of Gadhafi’s earliest supporters; Interior Minister Abdel-Fatah Younes; Justice Minister Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, and Ali Abdessalam Treki, a former UN General Assembly president. A number of ambassadors and other diplomats also have resigned.

- AP

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