Libyan oil minister defects as NATO urges pro-Gaddafi forces to disarm

Libya's oil minister has defected from Muammar Gaddafi's government and fled to Tunisia, Al-Jazeera TV reported Tuesday.

Rebels fighting to end the 41-year-old rule of Gaddafi said they had information that Shokri Ghanem, who is also head of the National Oil Corporation, had defected.

Reports said Ghanem had crossed the Ras El Jedir crossing point Saturday and checked into a hotel on the southern tourist island of Djerba.

The hotel said he left with his family early Tuesday for an unknown destination.

If the defection is confirmed, Ghanem would be among the most senior officials to abandon Gaddafi's government since anti-government protests broke out in mid-February demanding an end to the rule of Gaddafi.

But a government official in Tripoli said there was no sign Ghanem had defected.

Ghanem has been in charge of the oil ministry since 2006 and was previously prime minister. His oil ministry is the biggest income generator for the country.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for NATO's mission in Libya said on Tuesday the alliance had stepped up its psychological efforts to persuade pro-Gaddafi forces to disarm.

"Since the start of operations, we've been encouraging pro-Gaddafi forces to lay down their arms. Just recently, we have stepped up these activities by distributing leaflets and using an airborne radio system to tell Gaddafi forces to move away from any military equipment, including aircraft, vessels, vehicles and infrastructure," said Wing Commander Mike Bracken, the spokesman for the Operation Unified Protector.

"This is something that goes on to ensure that not only the forces on the ground, but also the civilian population know that it is not sensible to be near military installations, particularly command-and-control installations, to be near military vessels, military vehicles," he told a press briefing via video conference from Naples, Italy.

Bracken did not provide further details on the psychological campaign.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that Libya was ready to fully abide by UN resolution 1973 if the rebels took similar steps and NATO ended its airstrikes.

Lavrov said Russia was satisfied with the responses given by Libyan official representatives after holding talks with them.

"The responses we have heard could not be called negative ones. We were told that Tripoli has been ready to consider the approaches based on the road map offered by the African Union (AU), ready to abide fully by the (UNSC) resolution 1973," Lavrov told a news conference.

Moscow has urged Tripoli to cooperate with the UN in delivering humanitarian aid to all parts of Libya, and to stop using force against civilians, the Russian foreign minister said.

He also said Russia has demanded that international observers acceptable for all sides be allowed into Libya to monitor the settlement process.

The main task now was to reach agreement on the timing and conditions of a cease-fire, which would create a base for national dialogue about Libya's future, Lavrov said.

In this case, there would be no reasons for continuing NATO's airstrikes, he added.

"We support the efforts to persuade all conflicting parties that there is no military outcome from the situation," Lavrov said, stressing that Russia did not accept the role of a mediator between the government in Tripoli and the opposition, but would support the mediation by the UN and AU.

[Source: Xinhua, Tripoli, 18May11]

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