Libyan leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said on Wednesday he would defend national unity with force if necessary, after federalists declared autonomy for the oil-rich eastern region of Cyrenaica.
"We are not prepared to divide Libya," Abdel Jalil said as he called on leaders in Cyrenaica to engage in dialogue and warned them that there were remnants of the regime of slain leader Moamer Kadhafi in their ranks.
"They should know that there are infiltrators and remnants of Kadhafi's regime trying to exploit them now and we are ready to deter them, even with force," he said.
Abdel Jalil spoke at a conference in Misrata to unveil a draft national charter he said would serve as the framework for a future constitution.
The document lays the foundations for a parliamentary democracy with a decentralised system of administration, promising local accountability to citizens through mechanisms decided by the executive branch.
Libyans are due to elect a constituent assembly at the end of June and the resulting constitution will then be put to a referendum.
But some tribal and political leaders, who are trying to carve out an autonomous territory and have called for a federal system of governance in the oil-rich east, seem unwilling to wait.
On Tuesday, they unilaterally declared the region of Cyrenaica (Berqa in Arabic) as autonomous but recognised the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) as the country's legitimate representative in foreign affairs.
Libya was a federal union from 1951 to 1963 under King Idris I, which divided the country into three states -- Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan.
Cyrenaica, which runs from the Mediterranean town of Ras Lanuf eastward to the Egyptian border, and southward to Chad, comprises half of the country's territory.
It also holds about three-quarters of Libya's vast oil reserves, according to Arish Sayid of the Benghazi-based Arabian Oil Co.
Advocates of federalism say it will prevent the east from being marginalised as was the case for decades, while opponents fear it will split the country.
Benghazi-based Libyan political analyst Mohammed bin Hariz told AFP federalism would exacerbate rather than ease tensions in Libya.
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"Advocates argue that federalism is a safety valve for national unity but federalism and unity are contradictory terms that cannot co-exist," bin Hariz told AFP.
The distribution of oil wealth, he warned, could engender conflict.
"What did federalism achieve in Iraq," he asked, pointing to the ongoing struggle between the autonomous oil-rich northern region of Kurdistan and the central government in Baghdad.
Libyan university professor Sadiq Budawara said "many may agree that federalism is the most appropriate form of government for Libya and that it doesn't necessarily lead to division.
"But it is an entirely different matter when the decision to go federal is made by one region unilaterally without consulting other regions. This will split the land."
Senior officials in Tripoli, including interim Prime Minister Abdel Rahim al-Kib, have flatly rejected the federalist project as a throwback to the past, promoting a programme of decentralisation instead.
On Wednesday, deputy premier Mustafa Abu Shagur stressed that government "will be decided by the Libyan people through the constitution" and that the interim government rejects any move that "violates" national unity.
"Decentralisation means that every citizen will get (government) services no matter where he is, be it a small town or a large city," Abu Shagur said.
"Federalism means the splitting of the country into states and for each state to have its own government."
Meanwhile, hundreds of people demonstrated against federalism in southern Libya, including in the desert cities of Kufra, in Cyrenaica, and Sabha, in Fezzan, according to video footage posted on Facebook.
Similar rallies took place in Tripoli and Benghazi, AFP reporters said.
In the United States, US President Barack Obama held a previously unannounced meeting with Kib and stressed the need for elections to go ahead in June.
"The president encouraged the prime minister to continue plans to hold national elections in June and stressed the importance of transparency and engagement with Libya's newly energised civil society as the government develops accountable institutions," a White House statement said.
And the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation chief Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu urged Libyans "to preserve national unity and territorial integrity of Libya" and "renewed his call for all Libyans to rally around the (NTC)."