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Libyan oil minister defects, says he might join opposition

By the CNN Wire Staff
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On the frontlines in Libya
  • NEW: The Libyan oil minister says the nation's political structure is in shambles
  • NATO extends its campaign in Libya 90 days, the alliance says
  • Gadhafi is considering a possible cease-fire, a Libyan spokesman says
  • Under the prospective accord, "everything would be on the table," he says

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Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- Libya's oil minister confirmed Wednesday that he's defected and said he's considering signing up with the opposition movement.

The announcement, another blow to the Moammar Gadhafi regime, comes after NATO said it has decided to extend its mission in Libya by 90 days, continuing a campaign that began in March.

Shukri Ghanem told CNN in Rome that he left Libya because the suffering of the people became too unbearable.

"This war is getting even worse every day and there is no end to it and we would like to end this thing peacefully and come back to a solution quickly to reinstate democracy and constitutional government," he said.

Man aids struggling Libyan refugees
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  • Moammar Gadhafi
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Ghanem, 68, is the latest of several top Libyan officials to depart from the regime since the unrest there started in February. Among them was Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa.

The country's interior and justice ministers and other diplomats are part of the opposition movement trying to topple the Gadhafi regime.

The opposition's National Transitional Council is based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.

Ghanem couldn't predict how long the Gadhafi regime will last but said the strongman's political structure is in shambles. He said he doesn't know how long he'll be in Rome or when he'll return to Libya.

As for the NATO mission extension, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen issued a statement saying, "We are determined to continue our operation to protect the people of Libya.

"We will sustain our efforts to fulfill the United Nations mandate. We will keep up the pressure to see it through."

Resolution 1973 was approved by the U.N. Security Council in March and authorized member states "to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory."

The Libyan government has accused NATO of killing hundreds of civilians and wounding thousands more during a two-month bombing campaign in Libya.

Between March 19 and May 26, NATO air strikes have killed 718 "civilian martyrs," according to Libyan government spokesman Musa Ibrahim, who on Tuesday accused the alliance of acting outside "the limits of international law." Another 4,067 were injured, he said.

CNN cannot independently verify the figures.

The government released the numbers after meetings between Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and South African President Jacob Zuma in which the men discussed a possible African Union-brokered cease-fire, Ibrahim said.

Under the prospective accord, "everything would be on the table," said Ibrahim, "including the place and position of Gadhafi."

But, Ibrahim said, the country's longtime ruler would not step down from power as a prerequisite for further dialogue concerning the prospective cease-fire.

Zuma had "lengthy discussions" with Gadhafi, his office said in a news release. "We call on all leaders in Libya to exercise decisive leadership to find a solution to the crisis in the country, and to put the interests of their country first," Zuma said in the release.

He also urged "NATO and other parties to respect the (African Union's) role in searching for a solution."

An intensified NATO campaign has resulted in sizable defections from the Gadhafi camp, including eight generals who recently fled to Italy, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General B. Lynn Pascoe said in a written statement.

In recent weeks, Gadhafi has been seen in public only rarely as NATO has stepped up attacks against his sprawling Bab el-Azizia compound.

Rasmussen said Monday that Gadhafi's "reign of terror is coming to an end."

"He is increasingly isolated at home and abroad," Rasmussen said in a speech in Bulgaria. "Even those closest to him are departing, defecting or deserting."

Rasmussen said NATO has made "significant progress" in its Libya operation after conducting more than 3,300 strike sorties since March.

Opposition forces have also gained ground in the port city of Misrata, pushing westward toward the Libyan capital, the statement said. Government forces have regrouped in positions along the country's western Nafusa mountains, especially near the city of Yefran, where some 54,000 Libyans have fled to neighboring Tunisia, Pascoe said.

Close to 900,000 people have fled Libya since the recent conflict began back in February, the United Nations says.

Ghanem has been in charge of an industry battered by the civil conflict raging across the country.

According to Ghanem's curriculum vitae on the website of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, he is married with three daughters and one son.

He received a bachelor's degree in economics at the University of Libya in Benghazi and earned advanced degrees in the United States, at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston.

Ghanem has master's degrees in both economics and law and diplomacy and a doctorate in international economics, the website says.

He's held various positions in the Libya's government, including several spots in the Oil Ministry, and has been director of the OPEC secretariat's research division. He has written many articles and books on energy, it says.

He was secretary of the General People's Committee from June 2003 to March 2006, a position that's equivalent to prime minister.

Ghanem has been chairman of the Management Committee of the National Oil Corporation from April 2006 to the present.

CNN's Hada Messia, Raja Razek and Richard Roth contributed to this report.

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