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By Ulf Laessing
TRIPOLI, March 18 (Reuters) - A Libyan rebel leader said on Tuesday the oil in a tanker seized by the U.S. Navy belongs to the people of Libya's eastern Cyrenaica region and called on the Arab League to intervene.
Ibrahim Jathran and his followers are seeking greater autonomy for the eastern area and have blocked several ports there since July 2013. Tripoli has repeatedly failed to negotiate a peaceful end to the blockade, which has crippled the OPEC country's finances as its main revenue stream remains shut.
His latest attempt to export oil independently of Tripoli turned sour at the weekend after a U.S. Navy commando team boarded the Morning Glory tanker near Cyprus after the vessel eluded Libya's own navy.
The ship had loaded oil from rebel-controlled Es Sider port.
Speaking to a rebel television station, Jathran said the United States had helped the government steal oil from the people in Libya's east.
"We will continue our fight," said Jathran, calling for the international community to help build up state institutions.
"We demand that the U.S. not hand over the three sons of Cyrenaica (Libyans on the tanker) to the government of criminal militias which rule Tripoli because their lives would be in danger," he said.
While Jathran's oil sale proved unsuccessful, the episode led to the dismissal of Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who fled to Europe last week.
Western powers, worried that Libya might fracture or slide deeper into chaos, have been training Libyan armed forces and cajoling conflicting parties in government to reach a settlement, with little progress.
(Writing by Julia Payne; Editing by Dale Hudson)