BENGHAZI Libya (Reuters) - Libyan rebels who have seized oil ports in the past to press their demand for regional autonomy said on Friday they would declare independence in the east if the world recognized a rival parliament, heightening tensions in the major oil producer.
The actions of rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran are closely watched by oil markets. He and his followers once seized four major oil ports in eastern Libya, accounting for 600,000 barrels of oil, and held them for almost a year.
Jathran signed a deal with the government in April to reopen the oil ports and toned down his rhetoric. But now he has ramped it up considerably - he is not known to have threatened to break Libya up into separate states
Libya is already effectively divided and turning into a security nightmare for its Arab neighbors and Western powers. Armed groups and Islamist militants who helped toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 are fighting for power and a share of oil revenue.
An armed group seized the capital of Tripoli in August, set up its own parliament and left the internationally recognized government and House of Representatives a rump state in the east, with the prime minister and his cabinet based in Bayda and the parliament in Tobruk.
"If the world recognizes the (rival assembly) General National Congress ... then we will be forced to declare eastern independence," the group led by Jathran said in a statement. It said the group was speaking for unidentified eastern tribal leaders as well.
On Thursday, Libya's Supreme Court declared the House of Representatives in Tobruk to be unconstitutional. Parliament dismissed the ruling as invalid because the court is based in Tripoli, which is under the control of the rival assembly.
Jathran's group said the ruling was invalid as the judges had not been working independently. Eastern deputies from the House of Representatives would form a special parliament for Cyrenaica in case of a secession declaration, he said, referring to the historic name for eastern Libya, used before Gaddafi took power.
The court decision, while controversial, puts pressure on the international community to deal with rival Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi whose government and associated brigades control much of western Libya.
Western diplomats had previously praised the constitutional court as one of the most professional institutions in a country plagued by anarchy. Major Western powers have yet to comment on the ruling, reflecting uncertainty over how to deal with it.
In September, the United Nations started a first round of talks to bring together the contending parties. But the talks are based on the assumption that the House of Representatives is Libya's legitimate parliament.
Oil output had risen to around 800,000 barrels per day in the past two months, thanks mainly to the re-opening of Ras es-Sider and two other ports in the east, under a deal between Jathran and the internationally recognized prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni.
But production slumped by at least 200,000 bpd when the authorities were forced to close the southern El Sharara oilfield after an armed group entered it and stole cars and oil equipment.
Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Larry King