Fighting for Libya’s oil ports breaks out again

Forces of the UN-backed unity government launched an offensive to retake El Sidra and Ras Lanuf, but after several hours of troops allied to the rival administration in Tobruk said they had launched repelled the attack.
Fighhters loyal to General Khalifa Haftar and the Libya’s Tobruk-based parliament ride a pickup truck at the Zueitina oil terminal west of Benghazi on September 14, 2016. Esam Omran Al Fetori / Reuters
Fighhters loyal to General Khalifa Haftar and the Libya’s Tobruk-based parliament ride a pickup truck at the Zueitina oil terminal west of Benghazi on September 14, 2016. Esam Omran Al Fetori / Reuters

Benghazi, Libya // An attempt to retake key eastern oil ports by fighters loyal to Libya’s UN-backed unity government was repelled on Sunday by forces from a rival administration.

The operation came as the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) forces also resumed an offensive against ISIL fighters in the coastal city of Sirte further west.

The GNA is the centrepiece of UN efforts to restore stability in Libya and forge a central authority capable of tackling the twin scourges of ISIL and large-scale people trafficking across the Mediterranean to Europe.

But it has struggled to impose its authority amid opposition from the rival internationally recognised parliament in the eastern city of Tobruk which has refused to give the GNA its vote of confidence.

Oil is Libya’s key asset, and revenue from crude exports is vital if the GNA is to rebuild an economy and infrastructure ravaged by violence since the 2011 uprising that killed veteran dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

Last week, units of the Libyan National Army, which is loyal to the Tobruk administration and led by Gen Khalifa Haftar, seized Ras Lanuf, El Sidra, Zueitina and Brega in the so-called “oil crescent” along the coast.

They later handed the ports over to the National Oil Corporation, which said on Thursday that crude exports would resume “immediately” from Zueitina and Ras Lanuf. The NOC says it is loyal to the GNA, but also to the Tobruk parliament.

Early on Sunday, pro-GNA forces launched an offensive aimed at retaking El Sidra and Ras Lanuf, but after several hours of fighting Gen Haftar’s forces said they launched a counter-attack and repelled the loyalists.

“We repelled the attack and we are chasing them in the region,” said Muftah Al Muqarief, who heads oil guards loyal to Gen Haftar, adding that “some” assailants had been captured.

There was no independent confirmation from the oil crescent region of the fighting and the situation on the ground.

A Haftar spokesman, Mohamad Ibset, said earlier that guards loyal to the GNA had attacked.

A spokesman for the loyalist oil guards, Ali Al Hassi, said: “We attacked El Sidra and Ras Lanuf, and Haftar’s forces are trying to hit us with their warplanes.”

The counter-attack is a new blow to the unity government and NOC efforts to resume exports.

NOC chairman Mustafa Sanallah issued a statement calling for “combatants to avoid taking actions that could damage our vital national infrastructure”.

“Our national recovery depends on these ports being open and our oil flowing freely,” he said.

The fighting forced a Maltese-flagged tanker, the Seadelta, which was to load crude oil at Ras Lanuf for Italy, had to be “withdrawn to a safe distance offshore”, the NOC said.

Meanwhile firefighters were trying to extinguish a blaze at El Sidra, where a storage tank already damaged in January fighting was set alight during Sunday’s clashes.

Libya, with Africa’s largest oil reserves estimated at 48 billion barrels, has exported only a few tankers of crude in recent months.

The GNA, created last year as a UN-brokered power-sharing government, still needs a vote of confidence from the Tobruk parliament.

Gen Haftar, who sees himself as Libya’s saviour after driving extremist militants out of most of Libya’s second city Benghazi, is the most powerful backer of the eastern administration.

Days after the ports fell under his control, the east-based parliament promoted him to field marshal.

Also on Sunday, pro-GNA forces renewed attacks on the remain ISIL fighters in Sirte, which was the extremist group’s stronghold in Libya.

after a two-week lull.

“Our forces are using heavy artillery to target the positions where Daesh holdouts are cowering,” they said.

A field hospital on the outskirts of Sirte said three members of the loyalist forces were killed on Sunday.

More than 450 members of the loyalist forces, who are based mainly in the western city of Misurata, have been killed and about 2,500 wounded since the operation began in May.

Pro-government forces have said the situation at Misurata Central Hospital where doctors have been overwhelmed by casualties was also delaying the final push in Sirte.

Italy has said it will set up a military field hospital in Misurata, following a request from the GNA.

* Agence France-Presse

Published: September 18, 2016 04:00 AM

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