Libyan opposition says it has oil deal with Qatar

By Ben Hubbard

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 1 2011 8:46 a.m. MDT

BENGHAZI, Libya — A plan to sell rebel-held oil to buy weapons and other supplies has been reached with Qatar, a rebel official said Friday, in another sign of deepening aid for Libya's opposition by the wealthy Gulf state after sending warplanes to help confront Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

It was not immediately clear when the possible oil sales could begin or how the arms would reach the rebel factions, but any potential revenue stream would be a significant lifeline for the militias and military defectors battling Gadhafi's superior forces.

Rebel units were pushed back about 100 miles (160 kilometers) this week along the Mediterranean coast, but still held parts of oil-rich eastern Libya and the key city of Benghazi. In recent clashes, rebels displayed more firepower including mortars and rockets, but remain significantly outgunned.

Ali Tarhouni, who handles finances for the opposition's National Transitional Council, said that Qatar has agreed to market oil currently in storage in parts of southeastern Libya. He said one sticking point is how to truck the oil out of the country.

Tarhouni said money from oil sales will be put into an escrow account the opposition will use to pay for weapons, food, medicine, fuel and other needs.

There was no immediate comment from officials in Qatar, one of the few Arab states taking part in the international military contingent enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya. Qatar is also assisting a rebel satellite TV operation that began broadcasts this week from Qatar's capital Doha and has agreed to host a meeting of Libyan opposition groups.

A spokesman for Qatar Petroleum, the state company responsible for selling the Gulf nation's oil, declined to comment.

In London earlier this week, Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, said Qatar had offered to "facilitate" oil sales that are consistent with international law. Hague did not provide details about who would be supported, how the facilitation process would work, or how Qatar's offer has been received by diplomats.

It has been unclear how exactly such an arrangement would work. The effort to get oil out is hampered by several factors, including the rebels' ability to hold eastern oil production and export facilities, the departure of skilled foreign oil-field workers and international sanctions that technically apply to the country as a whole.

OPEC member Libya produced about output of 1.6 million barrels per day of oil before the conflict, just under 2 percent of world production.

Qatar — host of the U.S. Army's Middle East command hub — has significantly boosted its international profile in recent years with diplomatic initiatives and top-level sporting events, including being picked to host the 2022 World Cup.

The 22-member Arab League was critical in winning U.N. Security Council support for the no-fly zone. But only Arab League members Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have contributed aircraft to the mission.

Qatar also has agreed to host the first meeting of an international contact group aimed at coordinating political action and opening channels with Libya's opposition. No date for the meeting has been set.

A Qatari aid plane carrying 30 tons of relief supplies including medicine, medical equipment and blankets landed in the Libyan city of Tobruk on Wednesday, according to the official Qatar News Agency.

Last month, Qatar sent ground troops to join a Saudi-led force aiding the rulers in Bahrain, which has been wracked by anti-government protests and violence for more than six weeks.

In the Arab world, however, Qatar may be best known as the headquarters for the powerful Al-Jazeera broadcasting network, which was founded by the country's rulers in 1996.

A Libyan rebel spokesman, Mahmoud Shamam, said a satellite channel, Libya TV, began broadcasts from Doha earlier this week with financial and logistical support from Qatar.

A top rebel official, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, offered a cease-fire Friday if Gadhafi pulls his military forces out of cities and allows peaceful protests against his regime.

Associated Press writers Adam Schreck and Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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