Thousands demonstrated on Friday in the Libyan cities Tripoli and Benghazi in protest at plans of the regional council of the Eastern Cyrenaica region for regional autonomy. The crowd chanted slogans against federalism and against Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi, the head of the Cyrenaica council, that announced an initiative on Tuesday that has sparked fears the country might split up.
In Tripoli, thousands amassed in the symbolic Martyrs Square, chanted "No, no to federalism" and "Libya is one," an AFP journalist at the scene said.
A conference in Benghazi on Tuesday that was attended by thousands and tribal and political leaders unilaterally declared the region of Cyrenaica (Berqa in Arabic) autonomous, prompting fears that the country might split up. Senussi was appointed chairman of the region's newly-formed governing council.
The autonomy plan calls for a regional parliament and control over the police force and courts, but stops short of advocating a division of the country.In a BBC interview, Mr Senussi said he was ready to hold talks with the country's leadership about setting up the oil-rich semi-autonomous territory. He said he was committed to federalism but was prepared to discuss what form it would take.
In a speech on national TV on Wednesday, interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil, of the National Transitional Council (NTC), also called for dialogue but said national unity would be defended by force if necessary.
Following independence Libya was a federal union from 1951 to 1963 during the monarchy of Idris Senussi. At the time it consisted of three states, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan. It became an unitary state in 1963. Cyrenaica stretches from the central coastal city of Sirte to the Libyan-Egyptian border in the east. It contains two-thirds of the country's oil reserves. During the reign of Kadhafi the people of Cyrenaica felt particularly marginalised and neglected, as the colonel focused much of the development on the west.