Forces loyal to Libya’s unrecognised eastern authority yesterday seized two key oil export terminals, in a blow to a UN-backed unity government struggling to assert its control over the country.
The seizure of the ports was a major setback for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), which had hoped to rely on oil exports for its revenues.
The two Mediterranean ports are in an oil-rich area known as Libya’s “oil crescent” that is seen as a vital source of income for the GNA and key to the economy of the North African country.
Previously under the control of guards allied to the GNA, the Al-Sidra and Ras Lanuf ports were seized by forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, said a spokesman for Haftar’s army, Ahmad Mesmari.
Haftar, one of the most powerful military figures in Libya, is allied with a rival authority to the GNA based in the east of the country.
Mesmari provided no further details on the taking of the installations but said clashes were ongoing for control of another oil terminal at Zuwaytina in the oil crescent.
A colonel with pro-GNA forces, who are allied to the guards tasked with defending the facilities, confirmed that Haftar’s fighters were in control of Al-Sidra and Ras Lanuf.
Hatem El-Ouraybi, a spokesman for the eastern authority, said the attack was aimed at “regaining full control of the oil crescent”.
“The government calls on all the people of the oil crescent area — including those who were in the oil installations guards -- to join the army or return to their homes,” he said.
The Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra terminals are together capable of handling 700,000 barrels of oil per day but were closed for months after militant attacks.
In late July, the oil installation guards announced the reopening of the two ports after an agreement with the unity government to resume oil exports.
The terminals had been closed following attacks in January by the Islamic State group, who took advantage of turmoil after the 2011 uprising to gain a foothold in the country.
In recent weeks, pro-GNA forces backed by US air strikes have been pressing a months-long campaign to expel the last IS militants from what was their North African stronghold.
IS took over the city of Sirte in June last year, sparking fears they would use the city west of the oil crescent as a launchpad for attacks in Europe.
Haftar’s forces have since 2014 been fighting jihadists in the second city of Benghazi northeast of the oil-rich crescent.
UN Libya envoy Martin Kobler on Twitter said he was worried about the fighting near the oil facilities.
“Oil belongs to ALL Libyans,” he tweeted. “Conflicts can only be solved through dialogue, not violence. Urge all parties to sit 2gether.”
Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the seizure of the oil terminals could deal a fatal blow to the country’s oil sector.
“Unless there is a very quick mediation, this could lead to conflict and a final blow to Libya’s oil industry,” Toaldo said.
Oil is Libya’s main natural resource with reserves estimated at 48bn barrels, the largest in Africa.
But since 2010 the country’s production has plummeted from 1.5mn bpd to just 200,000 bpd.
Libya’s oil sector is managed by the National Oil Company which is split into two rival branches, one allied to the GNA and the other to the authority in the east.
Once pro-GNA forces expel IS from Sirte and there is no buffer between them and Haftar’s army, either side “could easily clash again,” Toaldo said.
The pro-GNA military command is based in the city of Misrata.
The attack on the ports came to “take advantage of Misrata’s exhaustion after Sirte” and “undermine any negotiation on the future of the GNA”, Toaldo said.
Libya has been in chaos since the 2011 revolt that toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, with rival authorities and militias vying for control of the country.
A UN-brokered deal in December led to the unity government starting to work in Tripoli, but it has since struggled to assert its authority over the country.
The parliament in the country’s east last month voted no confidence in the GNA in a setback to efforts to end the country’s political chaos.
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