BENGHAZI, Libya -- Tribal leaders and militia commanders declared a semiautonomous region in oil-rich eastern Libya on Tuesday, a move opponents fear will be the first step toward outright dividing the country six months after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.
Libya's National Transitional Council, the interim central government based in the capital Tripoli, has repeatedly voiced its opposition to the creation of a partly autonomous eastern region, warning it could eventually lead to the breakup of the North African nation.
"This is very dangerous. This is a blatant call for fragmentation. We reject it in its entirety," said Fathi Baja, the head of political committee of the NTC. "We are against divisions and against any move that hurts the unity of the Libyan people."
The thousands of representatives of major tribal leaders, militia commanders and politicians who made the unilateral declaration at a conference in Benghazi said the move is not intended to divide the country and that they want their state to be part of a united Libya.
But they insisted the step was necessary to end the marginalization that the east suffered for decades under Qaddafi's rule. The former dictator focused development and largesse on the west, allowing infrastructure to decline in the east, an area that was a constant source of opposition to the regime. Many in the east accuse the National Transition Council of continuing to favor the west.
The conference said the eastern state, known as Barqa, would have its own parliament, police force, courts and capital -- Benghazi, the country's second largest city -- to run its own affairs.
Under their plan, foreign policy, the national army and oil resources would be left to a central, federal government in Tripoli. Barqa would run from central Libya to the Egyptian border in the east and down to the Chad and Sudan borders in the south.
The plan seeks to revive the pre-Qaddafi system in place from 1951 until 1963, when Libya, ruled by a monarchy, was divided into three states: Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the southwest and Cyrenaica in the east -- or Barqa, as it was called in Arabic.
Tuesday's announcement aimed to pose a federal system as a fait accompli before the National Transitional Council, which has already struggled in its attempts to set a path for post-Qaddafi Libya. The Council has called for national elections in June to select a 200-member assembly that will name a prime minister to form a new government and then write a constitution.
The declaration illustrates one of the fundamental weaknesses in Libya since the regime's fall -- the lack of political institutions. Over 42 years in power, Qaddafi stripped the country of any credible representative bodies to concentrate power in his own hands. As a result, since his fall in August and death in October, towns, cities, tribes and militias across Libya have largely taken authority into their own hands, acting on their own. Some establish a level of legitimacy, while others don't.
So far other regions have not made any moves to create their own states or call for a federal system.
The Benghazi conference rejected a draft law put forward by the NTC to organize the election, because it would give the east only 60 seats in the assembly. Drafters say that reflects the west's larger population in the country of 6 million, but easterners see it as a continuation of discrimination against their region. The conference called for rejection of the election law.
The gathering appointed Ahmed al-Zubair, Libya's longest serving political prisoner under Qaddafi, as leader of its governing council. Al-Zubair, a descendant of the former Libyan King Idris whom Qaddafi ousted in 1969 coup, is also a member of the National Transitional Council.
The conference said elections would be held in the east in two weeks to chose a governing council.
Al-Zubair pledged to protect the rights of the region but also said Barqa state would recognize NTC as the legitimate representative for Libya in the international arena.
"Residents of Barqa, we are brothers. We protect each other," he told the gathering. "Libya will not be divided. Its one nation."
"I will be the leader who will protect justice and equality," he said. "I will protect your rights."
Baja, of the NTC, said that unilaterally creating a Barqa council "is a call for separation."
"What does it mean to have a Barqa army or to return to the old constitution? What does it mean even after you say (it is) under the umbrella of the NTC?" he said. He also blamed the government's poor performance for stagnation and for failure to address the needs of the people.
Among those who attended the conference were top leaders of heavyweight tribes of the eastern region, including the Ubaidat, Mughariba and Awajeer, which hold a powerful sway over large sectors of the population in the east. Also attending were commanders from the Barqa Army, a grouping of 61 eastern "revolutionary militias." Several senior Defense Ministry officials of the government also attended and supported the declaration.
Fadl-Allah Haroun, a senior tribal figure and commander of a revolutionary militia, said the declaration is meant to have administrative independence not separation.
"Federalism is not division but unity. We are not talking about changing the flag or national anthem. We are talking about different administration, a parliament and managing the financial affairs," he said.
Abu-Bakr Faraj, who is a deputy defense minister in the transitional Cabinet created by the NTC, attended the ceremony and told AP that the move is meant to "correct the path of the revolution."
Barqa's newborn council will "cut off the road in front of the hijackers of the revolution from controlling our destiny," he said.