Libya's oil minister still missing

Eric Watkins
OGJ Oil Diplomacy Editor

LOS ANGELES, May 23 -- Tunisian officials have added to the uncertainty mounted over the whereabouts of Libya’s Oil Minister Shukri Ghanmen, who apparently fled the North African country a week ago.

“I believe and I suspect…Ghanem just left Libya and that he is not any more working with the Gadhafi regime,” said Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Mouldi Kefi, when asked the whereabouts of Libya’s missing oil minister.

Ghanem’s whereabouts have been a mystery since Libyan rebels and a Tunisian security source last week said he had defected. The mystery later deepened when Austrian officials appeared to be in disarray over claims that that Ghanemn was in their country.

“There is no information available to us that would indicate that he is here," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, following reports by other officials that Ghanem’s name had appeared on a passenger list for a flight that arrived in Vienna on May 19.

"His name was on the passenger list but I can't say whether he is really in Austria or not," said Harald Noschiel, a spokesman for Austria’s Interior Ministry, who added that his most recent information was that Ghanem was in Tunisia.

A Tunisian official said Ghanem checked into a hotel on the island of Djerba on May 14, while the hotel said he departed with his family early on May 17 for an unknown destination—a point challenged by members of Libya’s opposition National Transitional Council (NTC).

“We have got confirmation from several sources that Shukri Ghanem is in his house in Vienna,” said Mahmud Shammam, NTC media spokesman, who added however that Ghanem “has not been in touch with the NTC.”

Ghanem’s absence leaves an apparent void at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries which Shamman said the NTC hopes to fill. “We want to attend, and will study the legal procedure,” said Shammam. “We still do not know if OPEC will invite us,” he said.

Qatar is so far the only OPEC member that has recognized the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan government. OPEC itself has not commented on the NTC or its desire to attend the June 8 meeting in Vienna.

There is no love lost between Ghamen, the NTC, and Qatar. In April, Ghanem sent a letter to OPEC describing as “unfortunate” the involvement of Qatar, a fellow OPEC member, in the sale of his country’s oil on behalf of the NTC (OGJ Online, Apr. 25, 2011).

Meanwhile, David Bachman, Austria’s Chamber of Commerce representative to Libya and a personal acquaintance of Ghanem, said Vienna would be a logical destination for him given his long personal ties to the city.

Ghanem worked at OPEC headquarters in Vienna for 8 years until 2001, and as Libya’s oil minister has served as its delegate to OPEC.

Ghamen also has two daughters who currently reside in Austria. But Noschiel, citing privacy laws, declined to comment whether they held Austrian citizenship. Media reports suggest that Ghanem himself holds citizenship in Europe, but that has not been independently confirmed.

Ghanem, who is also chairman of Libya's National Oil Co., had been due to attend OPEC’s meeting, but he has issued no comment since his departure from Libya for Tunisia earlier this week.

"The fact is that if [Ghanem] wanted to enter Austria he could do so because there is no reason for us not to let him into the country,” said Noschiel, the interior ministry spokesman. “He is not on any international list that would block this."

Earlier, however, Libya's deputy foreign minister flatly denied reports that Ghanem had defected, though he did not reject that the minister was out of the country.

"Shukri Ghanem is in his position, at work. If he's out of the country he'll be coming back," Khaled Kaim told Reuters (OGJ Online, May 20, 2011).

Uncertainty over Ghanem’s whereabouts coincided with an announcement by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that it today intercepted the oil tanker Jupiter which was carrying 12,750 tons of fuel for use by military forces loyal to Libya’s leader Moammar Gadhafi.

"NATO naval forces can deny access to vessels entering or leaving Libyan ports if there is reliable information to suggest that the vessel or its cargo will be used to support attacks or threats on civilians, either directly or indirectly," said NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero.

NATO, which is working under a UN mandate to protect civilians from government forces, said military and political pressure is weakening Gaddafi's hold on power and should eventually dislodge him.

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities in February, Libya produced 1.6 million b/d of oil. Now, production is said to have been reduced to a mere trickle at 50,000 or so b/d.

Until the outcome of the war is decided, any further production is unlikely from the Arab Gulf Oil Co., which was responsible for more than a quarter of Libya's former production (OGJ Online, May 17, 2011).

Contact Eric Watkins at hippalus@yahoo.com.



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