- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Libya’s oil minister defected after fleeing to Tunisia, a Tunisian security official said Tuesday of one of the highest profile figures to abandon Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s government.

Shukri Ghanem, the head of the National Oil Co. and Libya’s oil minister, crossed into Tunisia by road on Monday and defected, the Tunisian official said. The official, based in the region around the Ras Jdir border crossing, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Mr. Ghanem is one of the most prominent members of Col. Gadhafi’s government to leave amid fighting between the military and rebels seeking to end Col. Gadhafi’s rule of more than 40 years.

Others who have defected include Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, one of Col. Gadhafi’s earliest supporters; Interior Minister Abdel-Fatah Younes; Justice Minister Mustafa Abdul-Jalil; and Ali Abdessalam Treki, a former U.N. General Assembly president. A number of ambassadors and other diplomats also have resigned their posts.

A NATO-led campaign — authorized by the United Nations — is enforcing a no-fly zone over the country and launching airstrikes to try to protect civilians from attacks by Col. Gadhafi’s forces.

Early Tuesday, NATO jets pounded two government buildings in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, including the Interior Ministry, setting them on fire. A government spokesman suggested that the ministry was targeted because it contained files on corruption cases against senior members of the Benghazi-based rebel leadership.

In Geneva, meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that Libyan authorities appeared to be encouraging African migrants to board unseaworthy boats bound for Europe.

Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters that the Libyan conflict has opened up a route for migrants that was closed for two years because of an agreement between Libya and Italy.

Already some 14,000 people, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, have used Libya as a springboard to reach Europe, and thousands more are poised to make the treacherous sea journey in the coming weeks as weather conditions in the Mediterranean improve.

“The authorities (in Libya) are not discouraging at all — in fact, there may be signs that they are encouraging — these boat journeys,” she said.

Some are migrants fleeing the fighting in Libya, but others appear to be crossing into Libya from elsewhere in Africa because it is easier to get onto smugglers’ boats there.

Mr. Ghanem, the latest minister to defect, had been at odds with the Gadhafi regime before, basically losing his post for a while in 2009 as two of Col. Gadhafi’s sons differed on the direction the country should take in reforming its political and economic systems. His resignation was seen, at least in part, as linked to the creation of a new superstructure governing the nation’s oil sector, with the new agency designed to replace one he supported.

Before assuming the oil ministry’s portfolio, Mr. Ghanem served for about three years as prime minister at a time when Libya was emerging from under the cloud of more than a decade of international sanctions.

Mr. Ghanem is among Gadhafi government officials under U.S. sanctions announced by the Treasury Department in early April.

Abdel Moneim al-Houni, a former Arab League representative from Libya who was among the first wave of Libyan diplomats to defect, confirmed that Mr. Ghanem had defected but said no official announcement has been made out of concern for the safety of family members who are still in Tripoli. Mr. al-Houni said that he spoke to Mr. Ghanem after he crossed the border.

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