BENGHAZI, Libya — In a symbolic gesture of defiance, militia and tribal chiefs from eastern Libya gathered here Tuesday to demand a return to the loose federation that prevailed before Moammar Gadhafi took power four decades ago.
Challenging the country's transitional leaders in the nation's capital, Tripoli, the 3,000 people assembled in an old soap factory also announced unilateral plans to begin establishing their own autonomous government.
The eastern region is crucial to Libya's future because it contains much of the country's oil, and the demands cast new doubts on the transitional leaders' plans for elections in June to choose a national constituent assembly that would form a new government and draft a constitution.
Participants in the conference said their eastern state, known as Barqa, would have its own legislature, budget, police and courts, with Benghazi as its capital. But they said the federal government would continue to control foreign policy, the army and the oil.
"We sent our sons and weapons to liberate the entire western area," said Dr. Ezza el-Hwaity, a speaker at the conference, alluding to the east's place at the forefront of the uprising.
A regional contest for power erupted after the overthrow of Gadhafi six months ago.
The National Transitional Council, which came together without elections early in the uprising, recently announced plans that called for 111 members of the assembly to come from the populous western region around Tripoli and about 60 seats from the east of the country — a formula that helped provoke the eastern region's declaration of autonomy Tuesday.
Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the council, told the Associated Press that the declaration "leads to danger" of eventually breaking up the North African nation of 6 million. But he also said it was to be expected, because the east played a pivotal role in ending Gadhafi's rule.