Tribal and political leaders declared Libya's oil-rich eastern region of Cyrenaica as autonomous on Tuesday, raising fears the country may break up in the wake of Moamer Kadhafi's downfall.
TRIPOLI- At a conference attended by about 3,000 people in Benghazi, the major eastern city and cradle of an eight-month uprising against Kadhafi that ended in his capture and killing, they also called for a return to federalism in Libya.
"A federal system is the choice of the region" of Cyrenaica, which stretches from the central coastal city of Sirte to the Egyptian border in the east, the leaders said in a joint statement.
"The interim council of Cyrenaica was established under the leadership of Sheikh Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi to manage the region's affairs and defend the rights of its population," read the statement, which was posted online.
Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi, a member of Libya's ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), was elected leader of the region.
The newly created body will work within the framework of Libya's interim government, which it considers to be "the symbol of the country's unity, and its legitimate representative in international forums."
The proponents of autonomy say the move derives its legitimacy from the 1951 constitution, which was adopted under the monarchy of King Idris and which divided Libya into three states -- Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan.
Senussi is a relative of the late king and was the longest-serving political prisoner during the Kadhafi regime.
"This conference resulted in the choice of a type of government that is suitable to the Libyan people, especially in the Cyrenaica region," said Abu Bakr Bayira, who has been spearheading the movement.
Advocates of federalism say it will prevent the east from being marginalised as was the case in the past, while opponents fear the initiative will split the country and stand in the way of reconciliation.
Several Libyan cities, including Benghazi, have witnessed rallies rejecting the federal system of government, with banners and slogans emphasising national unity and state-building, and stressing that Tripoli is the only capital.
Senior officials in Tripoli, including interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil and interim Prime Minister Abdel Rahim al-Kib, have flatly rejected the federalist project, promoting a programme of decentralisation instead.
Abdel Jalil told AFP on Monday that calls for the implementation of a federal system did not represent a major source of concern to his government because "Libyans fought for a united Libya."
During the programme "Meet the Minister," broadcast on state TV on Monday, Kib flatly rejected calls to fashion Libya into a federation.
"We do not need federalism because we are heading towards decentralisation and we don't want to go back 50 years," he said without elaborating.
His address came after the interim government held an emergency session on Sunday to discuss a bill proposing the principle of decentralisation.
More than 50 local councils are reviewing the project, Abdel Jalil said.
On Tuesday, also in Tripoli, interim Interior Minister Fawzi Abdelal said the interim government so "no reason" for federalism in Libya.
"We have no reason for federalism because Libya does not group different peoples or religions," he said, adding that this type of government is not always successful.