Libya's top oil official has left post: rebels

The chairman of Libya's powerful National Oil Corporation (NOC) has deserted his post and defected from Muammar Gaddafi's administration, rebels fighting to end the leader's 41 years in power said on Tuesday.

Rebels said they did not know the whereabouts of Shokri Ghanem and there was no independent confirmation or comment from Libyan authorities. Arab television channels reported late on Monday Ghanem's defection and said he had left Libya.

"As far as we know he has left his post, this is as far as we know in the past 24 hours," rebel finance and oil minister Ali Tarhouni told Reuters during a visit to Doha, adding that he did know know where Ghanem was.

Tarhouni also said he hoped to represent Libya at an OPEC meeting in June.

Rebels and Arab media have in the past reported that Ghanem had stepped down, but on that occasion he re-appeared and said he was in his office and working as usual.

The defection, if confirmed, would be a blow to Gaddafi's administration as it battles a three-month-old uprising by rebels who have taken Benghazi and the oil-producing east of the North African country. It also faces a NATO bombing campaign.

To add to the leader's troubles, the International Criminal Court's prosecutor sought on Monday an arrest warrant for Gaddafi, accusing him of killing protesters.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo also asked judges for the arrest of Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam and his spy chief brother-in-law Abdullah al-Senussi. The judges must now see if there is enough evidence to issue warrants.

Representatives of Gaddafi's government were expected in Moscow on Tuesday and Russia hopes to host rebel envoys soon, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, casting Russia in the role of potential peacemaker.

"We are ready to conduct dialogue with all," he said at a meeting with the U.N. envoy for Libya, Abdelilah al-Khatib.

Lavrov repeated Russia's call for an end to fighting in Libya and the start of talks. "We are very, very interested in the swiftest halt to the bloodshed in Libya and its transfer into the channel of political dialogue."

The talks indicate Russia's desire to preserve its influence in Libya, where it has billions of dollars of arms, energy and infrastructure deals.

Russia, one of five permanent veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, abstained from voting on the resolution authorising military intervention in Libya and has accused NATO of going beyond the bounds of the resolution in its bombing.

Prosecutor's Evidence

Moreno-Ocampo said that residential buildings had been attacked, protests suppressed using live ammunition, heavy artillery used against funeral processions and snipers were deployed to kill people leaving mosques after prayers.

"We have strong evidence, so strong evidence," he said, adding: "We are almost ready for trial ... Gaddafi ruled Libya through fear and Libyans are losing that fear now."

The prosecutor's office had received calls from senior officials in the Gaddafi government in the past week to provide information. Prosecutors spoke with eyewitnesses to attacks and assessed evidence from 1,200 documents, plus videos and photos.

Libyan officials have denied killing civilians, saying they were forced to take action against criminal gangs and al Qaeda militants. They say the NATO bombing campaign is an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya's oil.

In central Tripoli, NATO airstrikes hit two buildings on Tuesday, including one which a Libyan spokesman said contained files detailing corruption cases against government officials who had defected to the rebels.

Officials summoned reporters after the attack in the early hours to visit the two damaged buildings which they said housed internal security forces and Libya's anti-corruption agency. One building was in flames.

"We believe that NATO has been misled to destroy files on their corruption cases," said spokesman Mussa Ibrahim. Ambulances were at the scene of the buildings on either side of a street although there was no sign of any casualties.

Frontier shelling

Thousands have been killed in the conflict, the bloodiest of the revolts during what has been called the "Arab Spring."

NATO, which has been hitting targets in Libya for nearly two months, appeared to step up its bombing campaign on Monday with strikes in several towns and cities including Tripoli, according to Libyan state television and rebels.

A Reuters photographer at the Dehiba-Wazin border crossing between Libya and Tunisia said rebels holding the Libyan side of the crossing were starting to pull back into Tunisian territory in anticipation of an attack by pro-Gaddafi forces.

The photographer and a local resident said on Tuesday shells landed near the crossing, including some that hit Tunisian soil.

They also said they heard heavy shelling around the Libyan village of Ghezaya in the mountains close to the crossing.

"Several shells have landed from the Ghezaya mountain. Some of them fell on Tunisian territory," said the local resident, who did not want to be identified.

[Source: By Joseph Logan, Reuters, Tripoli, 17May11]

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