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Published: Tuesday February 4, 2014 MYT 1:55:02 AM
Updated: Tuesday February 4, 2014 MYT 1:55:02 AM

Libya PM threatens eastern protesters with troops

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan stepped up the pressure on protesters blocking eastern ports on Monday, telling them he had weeks ago ordered troops to prepare to move there.

Zeidan has repeatedly warned he may use force to free up three key ports where protesters demanding more autonomy from Tripoli have cut off around 600,000 barrels per day of oil exports since summer.

"Weeks ago we ordered the minister of defence to give his instructions to the chief of staff to move toward the occupied ports in the east," Zeidan said at a news conference. "Now the matter is in the hands of the army command."

He gave no further details.

An army spokesman did not immediately respond to calls seeking details of any troop movements.

Armed protesters who defected from the state-run Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) in August seized Ras Lanuf, Es Sider and Zuetina ports, led by Ibrahim al-Jathran, a former rebel who fought against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya's uprising.

Negotiations have gone nowhere with the eastern federalists who have set up their own self-styled Cyrenaica government. But local eastern tribal leaders and officials say support is waning for Jathran within the federalist movement.

An attempt to load a tanker at Es Sider port ended abruptly when the navy opened fire, making clear how difficult it would be for Jathran to sell oil independently of Tripoli.

But with Libya's nascent army still in training, most analysts say it will also be difficult for Zeidan to send troops to free up the ports, where Jathran has dug in with his own militia.

(Reporting by Ghaith Shennib; writing by Patrick Markey, editing by William Hardy)

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