Self-rule activists in eastern Libya, who have been blockading key oil terminals for months, said Wednesday they would resume exports outside central government control and in defiance of the navy.
The announcement by the head of the self-declared Cyrenaica regional government marked a sharp escalation of its standoff with Tripoli, which on Sunday deployed the navy to prevent two tankers docking in the activist-held eastern port of Al-Sedra to take on crude.
"We announce our intention to trade in crude after the government failed to meet our demands," said Abd Rabou al-Barassi, who heads the executive bureau of the regional government, which Tripoli refuses to recognise.
Campaigners for autonomy for Cyrenaica within a federal Libya set up the regional government last August.
They later received the backing of striking guards who had seized the eastern region's key oil facilities the previous month in a separate dispute with the central government.
Barassi said that he was unilaterally lifting the force majeure declared by the state-owned National Oil Company which has halted exports from activist-held eastern ports and which was renewed only Saturday.
He said that federalist guards would provide protection for all vessels entering Al-Sedra to prevent any repetition of Sunday's naval action that stopped two tankers docking.
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"We will protect tankers taking on crude from Al-Sedra from the moment they enter Libyan territorial waters until they leave," he said, raising the prospect of a standoff at sea.
"We are taking this step in response to the obstinacy of the central government which has rejected all efforts to resolve the crisis."
Last month Prime Minister Ali Zeidan accused the federalists of simply wanting to profit from oil sales for their own account and vowed to use military force to prevent all loadings not authorised by the NOC.
The Libyan economy has been badly hit by the disruption to its key oil and gas sector, which accounts for the vast majority of hard currency receipts and government revenues.
There have been blockades at wells and terminals in the mainly Berber west and in Toubou areas of the south as well as in the east by activists seeking a bigger share of oil and gas income for their regions.
The crisis has seen Libya's oil output plunge to about 250,000 barrels per day from nearly 1.5 million bpd before.
Oil Minister Abdelbari al-Arusi said last month that lost production because of the blockades had cost Libya about $9.0 billion (6.6 billion euros) in revenues.