The Libyan government is refusing to deny claims that Libyan Oil Minister Shukri Ghanem has fled the country in the second high-profile defection from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s regime since the two-month air campaign began.
Ghanem, who had been oil minister since 2006 and was prime minister for three years before that, is believed to have contacted officials in Tunis after arriving in Tunisia on Monday.
Libyan officials said they had been trying unsuccessfully to contact Ghanem for the past 24 hours. He is believed to have crossed the border into Tunisia and shortly afterward made clear his intention to defect.
“He is in Tunisia, but we don’t know what he is doing there,” Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said.
Another official said Ghanem was on a “diplomatic mission” to bring about a ceasefire.
However, a spokesman for the interim Transitional National Council in Benghazi said he had contacted the group in recent weeks and was looking for a way to flee.
Ghanem has been regarded as a trusted figure within the Qaddafi regime, although he has differed with colleagues on oil policy. Former Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa was the last senior figure to defect in late March.
He has since been extensively debriefed by British intelligence and, along with other former Qaddafi loyalists, his knowledge has been utilized in planning for NATO operations.
Ghanem had been seen since the start of the uprising in February as a likely candidate to switch allegiances.
He had indicated that he believed change in Libya was necessary.
His apparent defection came hours after the international criminal court chief prosecutor called for the arrest of the veteran dictator, his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi for mass murder.
An escalation of the air campaign followed soon after that announcement. In the early hours, NATO bombs set fire to two buildings in Tripoli that British officials said were secret police compounds.
Meanwhile, a Libyan government diplomatic mission arrived in Moscow on Tuesday in a bid to broker a ceasefire. Russia has remained a staunch opponent of military action.
In recent days, Transitional National Council officials have been touring Europe and the US in an attempt to build international recognition for an alternative government.
Concerns have been raised in NATO that a loyalist rump of officials who have stood by Qaddafi for most of his 42-year rule could stymie attempts to change the regime and turn the NATO air campaign into a stalemate.
Such a result is seen as likely to further dampen the so-called “Arab spring,” which led to the rapid toppling of dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, but has sparked deadly street violence in Libya, Yemen and Syria and fresh sectarian enmity in Bahrain.