TRIPOLI - Civic leaders from eastern Libya declared autonomy of their oil-rich province on Tuesday, March 6, a move that sparked anger in the Arab country.
"What is happening today is the start of a conspiracy against the country," Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of Libya's National Transitional Council, told a press conference cited by Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"This is a very dangerous matter that threatens national unity."
Civic leaders of the oil-rich region of Cyrenaica declared the autonomy of their region, citing decades-long neglect.
"The interim council of Cyrenaica was established under the leadership of Sheikh Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi to manage the region's affairs and defend the rights of its population," read a statement following a meeting attended by 3,000 people in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Senussi is a relative of Libya's former king Idris and a long-serving political prisoner under deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Last year, al-Senussi, a member of the NTC, was named by the European Parliament as one of the winners of its annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
The eastern leaders also called for federalism in Libya, describing the NTC as the "symbol of unity".
"This conference resulted in the choice of a type of government that is suitable to the Libyan people, especially in the Cyrenaica region," said Abu Bakr Bayira, who has been spearheading the movement.
Supporters of autonomy defend the move as driving its legitimacy from the 1951 constitution, which was adopted under the monarchy of King Idris.
Under that constitution, Libya was divided into three states -- Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan.
Cyrenaica stretches westwards from the Egyptian border to the Sirte, half-way along Libya's Mediterranean coastline.
The province enjoyed prestige and power under King Idris because the royal family's powerbase was in the east.
But when the king was toppled by Gaddafi in a military coup in 1969, eastern Libya was sidelined for the next four decades. Residents complain that they have been denied a fair share of the country's oil wealth.
Advocates of federalism say it will prevent the east from being marginalized as was the case in the past.
But opponents fear that the initiative will split the country and stand in the way of reconciliation.
Libyan rulers denounced the call for autonomy as a "foreign plot" to divide the oil-rich country.
"Some sister Arab nations unfortunately are supporting and financing this sedition that is happening in the east," Abdel-Jalil said, without naming any state.
"Their fear made these sister nations unfortunately support this so that the revolution does not spread to their countries," he said.
The declaration was also met with unease among ordinary Libyans.
"This step has been taken by families who in the past had prestige and think that if they do this they can return to the past," Suleiman Khalifa, an official with National Democratic Current, a political party, told Reuters.
Analysts, however, rule out that the declaration would drag Libya into a new civil war.
"Today's statement from Benghazi was more a declaration by a group in favor of a high degree of autonomy, rather than a declaration of that autonomy itself," Alex Warren, a director of Frontier, a Middle East and North Africa consultancy, told Reuters.
"In reality, Libya is now effectively composed of many de facto self-governing towns and cities, overseen by a weak central authority," he said."The process of integrating these into a new political and economic structure will be volatile ... but I don't necessarily see it as the spark for any major civil conflict."