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Libya oil chief 'defects to rebels'

Libyan oil chief Shukri Ghanem has defected and now supports the rebels, in a major blow to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, news reports said, as Nato and its partners decided to extend their Libya mission for another 90 days.

"In this situation you can no longer work, so I have left my country and my work to unite myself with the choice of young Libyans to fight for a democratic country," the Ansa news agency quoted Mr Ghanem as saying in Rome.

Mr Ghanem said he had left the regime two weeks ago and arrived in Rome on Tuesday. The Italian Foreign Ministry said it had no comment to make on the report.

For several weeks, Libyan officials had insisted Mr Ghanem, who as head of the National Oil Corp serves as Libya's oil minister, was on a business trip.

As recently as last week, Libya's foreign ministry said he would represent the Gaddafi government at a June 8 Opec meeting in Vienna.

The defection, the latest in a series, followed the departure of eight top Libyan army officers, including five generals, who were presented to reporters in Rome earlier this week by the Italian foreign ministry days after they fled Libya.

Another 13 servicemen loyal to Gaddafi, including a colonel and four commanders, have fled to neighbouring Tunisia, the official Tunisian news agency reported. It is the second group of military men to defect to Tunisia this week.

The latest group arrived on Sunday in the port of Ketf in southern Tunisia, the news agency TAP said.

Meanwhile in Brussels, Nato and its partners in the military campaign to protect Libyan civilians decided to extend their mission for another 90 days, the military alliance's top official said Wednesday.

"This decision sends a clear message to the Gaddafi regime: We are determined to continue our operation to protect the people of Libya," said Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

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