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'Free Libya' oil tanker brings hope but rebels beaten back

Kim Sengupta in Ajdabiya

Only a relatively small amount was being shipped out, a fraction of the export by Africa's largest producer of oil before civil war erupted.

But for 'Free Libya', the coming of the oil tanker Equator at the port of Tobruk yesterday was a momentous declaration of economic independence.

The tanker will start what the rebel government hopes will be a lucrative international trade as it is being recognised politically by foreign states as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.

Meanwhile, Gaddafi and his family said yesterday that they would never leave Libya.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the dictator's second son, said that sweeping changes were possible -- including an elected president and democratic freedoms -- as long as no one demanded his father stepped down.

In an interview with the BBC, he ridiculed suggestions that the family should go into exile. "It's our country you want us to leave -- to where? The Maldives? To the Caribbean?" he said.

Abdulati al-Obeidi, the acting foreign minister, returned to Tunisia after travelling to three nations to outline plans for talks on a ceasefire and peace deal.

Secrecy

The Turkish foreign ministry, had signalled it was ready to play peace broker, but said there was no sign of common ground.

High secrecy surrounded the voyage of the Liberian-registered and Greek-owned vessel despite the coastline being patrolled by Nato warships, which would see off any attempts by Gaddafi's naval forces to intercept the cargo.

Around a million barrels of oil were being exported, the first in almost a month from the eastern half of the country. About 47 million barrels used to be sold abroad before the February revolution.

However, the collapse of the Libyan export market has pushed the price of oil to the highest for two and half years and the revenues gained by the rebel government could be used to kick-start the economy.

Michelle Wiese Bockmann, of Lloyds's List, said: "It is a signal that Libya is open to international business and shipping."

The oil was destined for Qatar, which has recognised the administration in the rebel capital, Benghazi, as the legitimate government.

While the commercial drive by the rebel government was successfully on the way, its military forces suffered yet another reverse. A concentrated artillery barrage by regime troops drove back the rebels 25kms from the city of Brega.

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