TRIPOLI, Libya — Libya's oil chief will represent Moammar Gadhafi's government at the upcoming OPEC meeting, the country's deputy foreign minister said Wednesday, appearing to debunk reports that National Oil Corp. head Shukri Ghanem had defected.
Ghanem, who in his capacity as the NOC's chief serves as Libya's oil minister, had left for Tunisia on May 16, in a move several of his close Libyan colleagues described as a defection. The news was seen as a blow to Moammar Gadhafi, the defiant Libyan leader whose forces are locked in a fierce battle with rebels in the east.
"Shukri Ghanem will be representing (Libya) as the minister of oil" at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries' June 8 meeting in Vienna, Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, told The Associated Press.
Kaim said Ghanem had been in touch "a couple of times" with the Libyan prime minister's office in Tripoli since his departure from the country. He did not elaborate on what Ghanem said.
Ghanem's apparent defection raised questions about who would represent Libya at the 12-nation producer group's meeting. Officials in the rebel held east had expressed an interest in attending the meeting, but OPEC has made no public comments about who would be allowed to represent Libya.
The rebels' participation would have further bolstered their bid to secure firmer international recognition as Gadhafi's regime grows increasingly marginalized in the West and even the Arab world.
In April, the Gulf state of Qatar helped the rebels complete the sale of 1 million barrels of crude that netted roughly $129 million for the anti-Gadhafi forces.
Ghanem has remained largely out of sight since leaving Libya, and has offered no confirmation that he has defected.
While his comments appeared to raise new questions about Ghanem's departure, Kaim said he had not personally been in contact with Ghanem and that the NOC chief was free to resign.
"At the end of the day, it's up to any official to leave his post, if he wishes," he said, adding that a Libyan government delegation, including one of Ghanem's deputies, was attending preparatory OPEC meetings.
Libya, which once produced about 1.6 million barrels per day of crude, is now pumping just a trickle of that volume.
The fighting between the rebels and forces loyal to Gadhafi forced the overwhelming majority of the foreign oil workers who provided the technical backbone for Libya's oil exploration and production efforts to flee. Oil infrastructure has been damaged in the fighting and international sanctions, a NATO-enforced no-fly zone and a partial naval blockade have limited exports and imports.
These factors have combined to leave the country, which sits atop Africa's largest proven reserves of conventional crude, suffering steep fuel shortages.
Lines several miles long at gas stations are an increasingly common sight in Tripoli, with motorists often waiting for two to three days to fill up their tanks. Fuel on the black market has climbed to 100 dinars per five gallons (19 liters) — a stark contrast to the government subsidized price of three dinars per five gallons.
The fuel shortages have also driven up the price of basic foodstuffs and halted some industrial activity in the country.
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