Libya's oil minister defects to Tunisia

Another high-ranking Libyan official has defected amid a widening NATO campaign of bombings as well as leafletting and other psychological warfare to persuade troops to stop fighting.
Shukri Ghanem, Libya's oil minister and head of the National Oil Corporation, has defected and fled to Tunisia according to a Tunisian security official. He is one of the highest profile figures to abandon Moammar Gadhafi's government. (Patricio Realpe/Associated Press)

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 Moammar Gadhafi's troops to stop fighting.

Shukri Ghanem, the Libyan oil minister and head of the National Oil Co., 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.

In this photo taken on a government organized tour, a Libyan soldier stands in front of an official building following an airstrike in Tripoli, Libya, early Tuesday. (Darko Bandic/Associated Press)
The defections suggest Gadhafi'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. Gadhafi appears to retain the backing of his core of military commanders.

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

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-Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi to abandon the fight.

Wing Cmdr. 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.

Government refuses comment on defection

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 Gadhafi's forces. In recent days, NATO attacks have concentrated on military and logistics hubs in Tripoli.

Gadhafi, 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.

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

Government officials were not immediately available to comment on the oil minister's defection. Ghanem is one of the most prominent members of Gadhafi'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.

Ghanem had been at odds with the Gadhafi regime, losing his post for a while in 2009 as two of Gadhafi's sons differed over the direction the country should take in reforming its political and economic systems. His resignation was seen, at least in part, as linked to the creation of a new superstructure governing the nation's oil sector, with the new agency designed to replace one he supported.

He previously served as prime minister for about three years at a time when Libya was emerging from under the cloud of more than a decade of international sanctions.

Fighting between Gadhafi's forces and rebels spilled over the Tunisian border Tuesday when several mortars fell on the Tunisian side of the Wazen crossing, the Tunisian news agency TAP said. Tunisia's air force scrambled jet fighters to fly over the border area.

Concerns about migrants

Also Tuesday, the UN refugee agency said Libyan authorities appeared to be encouraging African migrants to board unseaworthy boats bound for Europe.

Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in Geneva that the Libyan conflict has opened up a route for migrants that was closed for two years because of an agreement between Libya and Italy.

Already some 14,000 people — mostly from sub-Saharan Africa — have used Libya as a springboard to reach Europe, and thousands more are poised to make the treacherous sea journey in the coming weeks as weather conditions in the Mediterranean improve.

"The authorities [in Libya] are not discouraging, at all, in fact there may be signs that they are encouraging these boat journeys," she said.

Some are migrants fleeing the fighting in Libya, but others appear to be crossing into Libya from elsewhere in Africa because it is easier to get onto smugglers' boats there.