Eight months after occupying four oil ports in the east of the country — effectively hijacking Libya’s export economy in the process — federalist rebels agreed with the government of Tripoli to gradually return some ports to central authorities.
It is a first, small step forward for Libya’s government, whose control over the country’s splintering factions has been generally weak. Oil exports — among the country’s top revenue source — had dropped by a staggering 80 percent over the seizures.
The rebels — who have been demanding greater autonomy and a larger cut of oil sales revenues — will immediately concede the ports of Zueitina and Hariga, south and east of Benghazi, but they are holding on to the larger ones of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider until further negotiations.
As part of the deal, the government will pay compensation to the rebels, drop charges against them, and call off its threats of a military offensive. But the conditions to be met by authorities before all remaining ports can reopen were not immediately clear.
"The ports Zueitina and Hariga will be handed over to the state with the signature of this agreement,” Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani said as he read the agreement. “The protesters are banned from returning or obstructing work at the ports."
Es Sider was at the center of a heated standoff last month, after the North Korean-flagged “Morning Glory” tanker sailed off from there with a $38-million–worth of crude. North Korean officials denied having anything to do with the tanker.
The shipment — which would have marked the rebels’ first international oil sale against the will of the central government — was briefly intercepted by Libyan forces, before it managed to escape into international waters.
It was eventually seized by US Navy Seals off the coast of Cyprus, but not before causing a great deal of embarrassment to the Tripoli government, long accused of being at the mercy of the rebels.
The video below shows the tanker at the heart of the controversy, after US forces seized it and took it back to Libya.
The Morning Glory at the end of its adventurous journey.
Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was sacked by parliament as part of the fallout from that incident, in an event that signaled the deteriorating situation in a country that has remained deeply divided since the toppling of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Osama Buera, a founding member of the federalist Cyrenaica Political Committee, the political wing of the rebel group controlling Libya’s Barqa region, told VICE News that the deal with the government went “smoothly” and that the rebels will reopen the remaining ports in two to four weeks “if the government is serious about the terms of the agreement.”
For the rebels, who said they worked with the oil facilities guard units to advance demands that would satisfy both groups, the deal signals a move towards what they hope will be political recognition.
“For us as the autonomy movement in Cyrenaica, our voice now is well heard even on the table of the international community,” he said, explaining that the group would start campaigning for an independent state in the region. “Now it’s time for us to move towards more political activity.”
Ibrahim Jathran, the rebels’ leader, also confirmed the deal in a message broadcast by a rebel TV station.
“We did this out of good will, to build trust, have a dialogue, and solve all problems between Libyans by peaceful means," he said. "We serve Libya's interests."
VICE News traveled to Libya and met with Jathran, who told us then that the rebels wanted “real participation in decision making” and a “fair share of the wealth.”
So far, the ports’ occupation has cost the country some $7 billion in lost oil revenue, according to Reuters, also forcing the central bank to tap into its reserves to keep the state apparatus afloat.
But while the latest deal will give a much needed boost to the country’s stalled exports — Zueitina and Hariga ports have a capacity for about 200,000-barrels–worth of shipments a day — the government’s problems are far from over.
In addition to the ports that eastern rebels are not surrendering yet, splintered groups of protesters in the west of the country have also turned off the tap on oil production there, but the lack of centralized leadership there makes the prospect of negotiations a far shot.
“Each region has its own demands and differences,” Buera said, referring to different factions fighting for autonomy in other parts of the country. “In Libya there is a lack of consistency, and each region has its own problems and internal conflicts.”
But if the deal with the government is successful, he said, other rebel groups might follow along.
“We believe that instead of sliding in a civil war in the region, it’s better to go towards the political table,” he said.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi