Libya's oil minister has defected and fled to Tunisia, a Tunisian security official said Tuesday, one of the highest profile figures to abandon Moammar Gadhafi's government.
Shukri Ghanem, the head of the national oil company 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, was not authorized to speak to the media.
If confirmed, Ghanem would be one of the most prominent members of Gadhafi's government to defect amid fighting between the military and rebels.
Ghanem is among Gadhafi officials under U.S. sanctions announced by the Treasury Department in early April.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim denied Monday night that Ghanem had defected. "He is working in his office," he told The Associated Press.
Another Libyan official told Reuters that there was no indication that Ghanem had defected.
"I have no news that he has resigned or defected or something," the official said. "Part of his job is to travel and deal with oil companies. So we have not heard anything beyond that."
However, Abdel Moneim al-Houni, a former Libyan Arab League representative who was among the first wave of Libyan diplomats to defect, confirmed the defection but said no official announcement has been made out of concern for the safety of some of his family members who are still in Tripoli.
Al-Houni said that he spoke to Ghanem after he crossed the border.
"Most of the officials remaining in Tripoli are forced to stay under intimidation and pressure. They are not happy with what is happening," Al-Houni told the AP.
Guma El-Gamaty, London-based spokesman for Libya's Interim National Council, said "all that we know is that Shukri Ghanem is in Tunisia."
Rebels and Arab media have in the past reported that Ghanem had stepped down, but on those occasions he reappeared and said he was working as usual.
The defection would be a blow to Gadhafi's administration as it battles a three-month-old uprising by rebels who have taken the city Benghazi and the oil-producing east of the North African country.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim said four journalists d
etained since early April would be released Tuesday or Wednesday.
He told The Associated Press Tuesday that the four had appeared before a judge in an administrative court and were to be freed soon.
Ibrahim named three of them as: James Foley, who had been covering the conflict in Libya for the Boston-based news agency GlobalPost; Claire Morgana Gillis, a freelance journalist who wrote for The Atlantic and USA Today; Manu Brabo, a Spanish journalist.
They were picked up on April 5 near the town of Brega. It was not immediately clear who the fourth journalist was.
Photojournalist Anton Hammerl, who has South African and Austrian citizenships, went missing in Libya about the time the others were detained.
Entered Libya 'illegally'Ibrahim said the four journalists were returned to detention following the hearing on charges that they "entered the country illegally," suggesting they had not applied for and received visas before arriving to work in Libya.
He also said that arrangements were being made for their repatriation. He did not know if they would be required to pay fines before leaving.
"They should go home today or tomorrow at the latest," Ibrahim said. "After the trial they were returned to external security — it's like detention."
Foley and Gillis were visited by an intermediary in mid-May, according to a GlobalPost spokesman, and were reported in good health and being treated well. Foley's family is from Rochester, New Hampshire, while Gillis' parents live in New Haven, Connecticut.
Photojournalist Manuel Varela de Seijas Brabo, who works under the name Manu Brabo, was in touch with his parents by phone at least once. Reporters working in Tripoli have not been allowed to see the detained journalists.
In central Tripoli, NATO airstrikes hit two buildings Tuesday, including one which a Libyan spokesman said contained files detailing corruption cases against government officials who had defected to the rebels.
Officials summoned reporters after the attack in the early hours to visit the two damaged buildings which they said housed internal security forces and Libya's anti-corruption agency. One building was in flames.
"We believe that NATO has been misled to destroy files on their corruption cases," said Ibrahim, the government spokesman. Ambulances were at the scene of the buildings on either side of a street although there was no sign of any casualties.
Thousands have been killed in the conflict, the bloodiest of the revolts during what has been called the "Arab Spring."
NATO, which has been hitting targets in Libya for nearly two months, appeared to step up its bombing campaign on Monday with strikes in several towns and cities including Tripoli, according to Libyan state television and rebels.
A Reuters photographer at the Dehiba-Wazin border crossing between Libya and Tunisia said rebels holding the Libyan side of the crossing were starting to pull back into Tunisian territory in anticipation of an attack by pro-Gadhafi forces.
The photographer and a local resident said on Tuesday shells landed near the crossing, including some that hit Tunisian soil.
They also said they heard heavy shelling around the Libyan village of Ghezaya in the mountains close to the crossing.
"Several shells have landed from the Ghezaya mountain. Some of them fell on Tunisian territory," said the local resident, who did not want to be identified.