TRIPOLI/VALETTA (Reuters) - Former Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan has fled to Europe after parliament voted him out of office on Tuesday over his failure to stop rebels exporting oil independently in a brazen challenge to the nation's fragile unity.
Zeidan was in Malta for two hours late on Tuesday on a refueling stop before going to "another European country", Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told state-owned television TVM. But no European government had confirmed his arrival by late morning on Wednesday.
The standoff over control of oil exports threatens to deepen dangerous regional and tribal faultlines in Libya where rival militias with powerbases in the east and west back competing political factions in the transitional government.
Western powers fear the OPEC member state could slide into greater instability or even break apart.
Parliament acted after rebels holding three key ports in the east disobeyed government orders and loaded a North Korean-flagged tanker with oil as part of their drive for autonomy.
Although Zeidan had threatened to use force to stop the vessel leaving, the tanker managed to reach international waters, undermining Zeidan's credibility.
Malta's Muscat said he spoke briefly to Zeidan, who lived for many years in Germany before the 2011 uprising encouraged exiles like him to return to a North African country still struggling to shake off four decades of Gaddafi's one-man rule.
Libya's state prosecutor Abdel-Qader Radwan had issued a travel ban on Zeidan because he faces an investigation over alleged irregularities involving misuse of state funds.
The General National Congress (GNC), Libya's transitional assembly, agreed Defence Minister Abdallah al-Thinni would be acting prime minister for two weeks. Deputies plan to pick another replacement in the interim ahead of a parliamentary vote expected later this year.
Whoever is chosen will face the difficult task of trying to unite and lead a country deeply divided along tribal, regional and political lines, and where Islamists oppose more liberal leaders such as Zeidan.
"We are new to this political game. We are still learning," said Salah Elbakhoush, a Tripoli-based political analyst.
"But we hope that there will be an improvement after Zeidan left," he said.
NO ARMY, NO CREDIBILITY
Libya has no effective army, police or political institutions, and the government is in danger of running out of money because the rebel activity at oilfields and ports have dried up vital oil revenue. Oil output has fallen to a trickle.
Clashes broke out on Tuesday between rebel gunmen and pro-government forces in Sirte, a central coastal city dividing western and eastern Libya, where two of the country's major rival militias have their powerbases.
There was no still word on the whereabouts of the tanker which sparked Zeidan's ouster.
A military spokesman said on Tuesday that Libyan gunboats chased the tanker along Libya's eastern Mediterranean coast and opened fire, damaging it, and said Italian naval ships were helping move the tanker to a Libyan government-controlled port.
But Italy denied any of its vessels were in the area at the time and the reported firing incident could not be confirmed. The navy and defence ministry have not been available for comment since.
The rebels are made up of former oil security forces which defected with their leader Ibrahim Jathran, a former Gaddafi fighter, in the summer and took over the oil terminals to claim more autonomy for their self-declared Cyrenaica region.
(Reporting by Chris Scicluna and Ulf Laessing; editing by Patrick Markey and Sonya Hepinstall)