Libya was on the brink of sliding back into civil war on Tuesday evening, according to the UN, which issued a call for immediate de-escalation as armed groups mobilised in Tripoli.
A growing standoff between rival militia groups led Unsmil, the UN mission in Libya, to warn that "current mobilisation of forces affiliated with different groups creates tensions and increases the risk of clashes that could spiral into conflict."
The oil fields in western Libya were shut by the gunmen of the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), a force employed to guard oil installations, with a PFG statement saying the issue was over pay.
Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) said it would take legal action against the strikers and condemned their actions.
“Stopping the production of the El Sharara, El Feel, Al Wafa and Hamada fields, and the loss of more than 300,000 barrels per day at the hands of members of the Petroleum Facilities Guard as a result of wasting the country’s wealth,” the agency said in a statement.
“The attorney general's office will take the necessary measures to investigate and collect information and inferences to reveal the planners, implementers and beneficiaries of this disgraceful act,” the statement added.
The strike takes place amid growing doubts that the presidential election will be held on time on Friday, the date originally chosen to mark the 70th anniversary of Libya’s independence.
Diplomats expect the vote will be postponed, though no formal decision has been announced by the Higher National Elections Commission.
The commission said on Monday it is still awaiting the result of a decision from Parliament on which candidates are eligible to stand. However, election law requires a minimum of two weeks of campaigning, which is now impossible.
Outside powers are desperate to see elections go ahead, seeing them as key to ending years of war and chaos. On Monday, US ambassador Richard Norland met election officials to underline American support.
“We do not support any particular candidate but we support the process,” said the ambassador.
The oilfield protest comes amid a worsening fallout between NOC chairman Mustafa Sanalla and the country’s oil minister, Mohammed Oun, of the UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNU).
In October, Mr Oun ordered the suspension of Mr Sanalla, saying he had made a visit abroad without permission, but Mr Sanalla ignored the suspension order. This week, the NOC issued a statement saying the suspension is invalid.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the suspension controversy, it has left the leadership of Libya’s oil sector, which accounts for 95 per cent of the country’s export earnings, divided between the minister and the NOC chief.
Meanwhile, the GNU is pondering its next step if Friday’s presidential election is cancelled.
The election is the culmination of a peace process that began in October 2020 when the UN brokered a ceasefire between the Libyan National Army, commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and the western Libyan forces ranged against him. This ceasefire has been a success and is being monitored by a joint military commission in Geneva.
The ceasefire was followed in March by the formation of the GNU, Libya’s first united government since civil war began in 2014.
Critics of the GNU have complained about the decision of its prime minister, Abdulhamid Dbeibah, to run as a candidate in the presidential election after he pledged on taking office not to.
Officials of the UN Support Mission to Libya (Unsmil) are trying to mediate a solution to both the oil and election crises, but have been affected by the resignation earlier this month of leader Jan Kubis.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has since appointed US diplomat Stephanie Williams, a former director of Unsmil, as his special adviser on Libya.
Unsmil yesterday took the unusual step of posting on its Twitter account an official denial of a report that it had evacuated its office in Tripoli amid growing militia tension in the city, labelling the claim “fake news".
The elections process has been hit by legal challenges against leading candidates, including Mr Dbeibah and Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, son of Libya’s late dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The challenges were ultimately dismissed by appeals courts.
In an attempt to help resolve the elections issue, Field Marshal Haftar, who is a presidential candidate, met key officials on Tuesday, including fellow candidate Fathi Bashargha, a former interior minister, in Benghazi.