Libya militias battle for control of oil ports

Columns of smoke seen round the coastal town of Ben Jawad, 30km from Libya's largest oil port.

Fighters of Libyan forces allied with the UN-backed government celebrate after they finished clearing Ghiza Bahriya, the final district of the former ISIL stronghold of Sirte, Libya, December 6, 2016. Hani Amara /Reuters
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Libyan militias launched a fierce offensive to capture the country’s key oil ports on Wednesday, with eastern government forces who control the facilities hitting back with air strikes.

Fighting was centred around the coastal town of Ben Jawad, 30 kilometres west of Es Sider, the country’s largest oil port, with social media showing images of columns of smoke rising from bombing raids.

Reports from Libyan media said the eastern government, controlled by the House of Representatives parliament in Tobruk, had bombed the attackers, using Mig 21 jets and attack helicopters to hit advancing columns of militia vehicles. Troops were deployed to protect the perimeters of the ports.

Libya’s state oil company, the National Oil Corporation, which is politically neutral, said it had evacuated non-essential staff from Es Sider but not from the nearby port of Ras Lanuf, and was continuing to load tankers at the two sites.

The fighting is a blow to diplomatic hopes that, with the crushing of ISIL in its main base at Sirte earlier this week, Libya’s fractious militias could unite.

The destruction of ISIL in Sirte, after a six-month battle, appears to have been the signal for some militias in western Libya to resume large scale operations in the country’s civil war.

Libya media reports say the oil ports attack is being led by units connected to the Benghazi Defence Brigades, a militia grouping which in the summer led failed efforts to capture Benghazi from eastern government forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Both Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, Libya’s largest oil refinery, were captured in September by Field Marshal Haftar’s forces from a militia loyal to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), which is backed by the United Nations and is a rival to the eastern government. The ports are key outlets for Libya’s so-called Oil Crescent, a vast area of oilfields that account for two thirds of the country’s total oil production.

Since Field Mashal Haftar and his fighters captured the ports, oil production has risen from 220,000 barrels a day to about 600,000 barrels per day. This production increase has raised hopes that Libya could earn desperately-needed foreign currency.

The GNA was quick to denounce the attack, releasing a statement saying, “The GNA announces that it has absolutely no connection to the attack that happened on Wednesday.”

The attack came the day after Martin Kobler, chief of the United Nations support mission for Libya, told the UN security council in New York that rising oil production gave Libyans hope of avoiding financial meltdown.

“Oil production has increased significantly, tripling from August, to almost 600,000 barrels per day,” said Mr Kobler. “Libya’s financial reserves have shrunk from 109 billion dollars (Dh400.4bn) in 2013 to near 45 billion dollars. The country will face an economic meltdown unless something changes.”

Both Es Sider and Ras Lanuf were heavily damaged in fighting in both December 2014 and again, in an attack by ISIL, in February this year, and there are fears that further damage will see the ports effectively destroyed, nullifying their value no matter which group ends up controlling them.