As anti-government protests sweep across Libya, even entering the once-tranquil capitol of Tripoli, and major foreign oil companies suspend or withdraw operations in the wake of civil unrest, there are many unanswered questions.
For one thing, where is Moammar Gaddafi? Some media sources as well as including British Foreign Secretary William Hague claim that Gaddafi has fled Libya to seek exile in Venezuela.
“I have seen some information that suggests he is on his way there at the moment,” Hague told reporters at an EU meeting in Brussels.
Both the government in Caracas as well as Gaddafi’s son have both denied the reports, insisting the strongman remains in Libya.
Other reports said Gaddafi has fled to his childhood home of Sebha to prepare for a last stand. Still, other reports state that two Libyan jets have landed in Malta in the Mediterranean.
Gaddafi has ruled Libya since 1969, making him the Arab world’s longest-serving ruler, but now his hold on power looks very precarious.
It is believed that 400 people have been killed in clashes over the past few days, with the heaviest casualties in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city and a traditional stronghold for opposition groups. Benghazi is now reportedly in the hands of opposition forces – not coincidentally, some army troops have allegedly defected and joined the protestors.
“Youths with weapons are in charge of the city. There are no security forces anywhere,” University of Benghazi professor Hanaa Elgallal told Al Jazeera International television.
There are reports that protesters have set government buildings ablaze in Benghazi, Tripoli and several other cities. Even the Parliament building in Tripoli was reportedly set on fire.
Also, there have been unconfirmed reports of Libyans looting banks and other government offices.
Even some senior officials of the government have turned their back on Gaddafi. Mustapha Abdeljalil, has resigned his post in protest in objection to the excessive use of force against demonstrators, according to the Quryna newspaper. Libyan diplomats in India and China has also reportedly quit.
Libya's envoy to the Arab League, Abdel Moneim al-Honi, told the BBC he is joining the revolution.”
A group of Libyan Islamic leaders has issued a fatwa instructing all Muslims to rebel against the Libyan political leadership and demanding the release of all imprisoned protesters.
Another anti-government group, The Network of Free Ulema of Libya, demanded the release Islamic scholar Sadiq al-Ghriani, who was arrested after criticizing the government.
Condemnation for the brutality of Libya’s forces against demonstrators have come from all corners. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is visiting neighboring Egypt, said “Our message, as it has been throughout this - I think we have been extremely consistent in saying that the response to the aspirations people are showing on the streets of these countries must be one of reform not repression./ We can see what is happening in Libya which completely appalling and unacceptable as the regime is using the most vicious forms of repression against people who want to see that country - which is one of the most closed and one of the most autocratic - make progress. The response they have shown has been quite appalling.”
BRINK OF CIVIL WAR?
Libya's deputy ambassador to the UN condemned the Gaddafi government, accusing it of committing genocide.
There are also conflicting rumors about the whereabouts of Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, who earlier appeared on state TV delivering a rambling speech in which he claimed his father has the support of the country’s military and that his family would “fight until the last bullet” and that we will “eradicate them [enemies] all.”
He was said the government was prepared to make some constitutional reforms, and warned that if a civil war breaks out it would destroy Libya’s vast oil wealth.
Other reports claim Seif was himself injured in gunfire.
“Libya is the most likely candidate for civil war because the government has lost control over part of its own territory,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar.
Major British and European oil companies have suspended operations in Libya, although some said their business schedule was unaffected by the unrest.
OIL REVENUES THREATENED
BP plc (NYSE: BP)said it is suspending its drilling activities in Libya and also plans to evacuate non-essential staff and their families. However, the company said its offshore operations and seismic work have not been affected. In addition, the company’s chief executive Bob Dudley said the company was committed to doing business in Libya.
British oil giant Royal Dutch Shell Plc, which signed a deal valued at $900-million to explore in Libya four years ago, said it has temporarily evacuated the families of expat workers in Libya. However, its offshore operations are continuing as normal.
Statoil, the Norwegian oil group, has closed its office in Tripoli and removed its staff. The Austrian oil company OMV AG is also calling back all non-essential staff from Libya. The German energy company RWE AG, has suspended operations and recommended that international employees and relatives return home.
However, Italian oil giant Eni SpA (NYSE: E), the largest foreign oil producer in Libya, said its businesses there are operating as usual. Eni said while “no problems at plants and operational activities have been reported” some family members of Eni workers are being relocated and repatriated. Similarly, Repsol,
Spain’s largest oil company, said it is also operating normally in Libya and isn’t removing staff. In addition, France's Total SA (TOT) and Russia’ OAO Gazprom also said their Libyan operations remain on a normal schedule.
Libya, a member of OPEC, owns the largest crude oil reserves on the African continent and produces about 1.6-million barrels a day of crude – or about 2 percent of global oil demand.
Despite its oil wealth, unemployment is running at about 30 percent in some regions and poverty is widespread. As in many other Middle East/North African nations, corruption among the elite is endemic and the gap between rich and poor widens every year.