Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi, a member of the National Transitional Council, addresses the media after the election.

Story highlights

"We are not looking to split the country," says 79-year-old former military man

Tribal leaders, politicians, others vote for Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi to lead region

"The oil is for all Libyan people," he says

NTC chairman denounces the declaration as "a danger that threatens national unity"

Tripoli, Libya CNN  — 

Leaders of oil-rich eastern Libya declared it Tuesday to be a semi-autonomous region and voted for a 79-year-old former military man to lead it.

“We’re talking about the whole eastern region of the country,” said Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi, a member of the ruling National Transitional Council, in a telephone interview with CNN from Benghazi. Speaking through an interpreter, he said he wanted the central government in Tripoli to continue to run such matters as defense and the treasury, but to leave health, education and “social things” to be managed by local governance in the region, once called Cyrenaica.

“We are not looking to split the country,” said al-Senussi, 79, who said he was jailed for 31 years during the regime of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for leading a failed coup d’etat in 1970. “We are not looking for division at all. Our target is to keep Libya united. We are hoping to run our region. … We have the federal government, and we have the local government.”

Al-Senussi said he was elected by 4,000 to 5,000 tribal leaders, politicians, activists and academics who met Tuesday in Benghazi. “All of them agreed on my leadership to lead the region for the time being,” he said.

But a video posted Monday on YouTube indicated his support was less than unanimous. In it, scores of demonstrators chant, “Federalism is the path to divisions,” “Oh, great, Libyan, do not accept divisions!” and “Tripoli is the capital!”

Al-Senussi added that he had no interest in grabbing the oil wealth for the region’s residents at the expense of the rest of the country. “The oil is for all Libyan people,” he said. “It would be written into the constitution.”

He added that his first priority would be to stabilize the region. “Security is a priority now,” he said.

Al-Senussi said he had no immediate plan to resign from the National Transitional Council. “I was thinking of resigning, but I got advice from some people that I should take some time to see the reactions of the NTC first.”

That reaction came quickly. In a news conference Tuesday in Tripoli, NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil denounced the declaration as a move to divide Libya, “a danger that threatens national unity.”

He called on all Libyans “to rally around the NTC that has international legitimacy.”

He said the government and NTC are working to establish a decentralized state with more than 50 local councils.

Tuesday’s move in Benghazi “puts the country in danger because the international community will not allow Libya to be divided, unsafe and undemocratic,” he said.

CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh, Roba Alhenawi and Tom Watkins contributed to this report.