Libya oilfield shuts down as fighting intensifies in south-west

The closure of the Sharara oilfield , blamed on armed groups interfering with pipelines, further affects the country’s sagging oil production.

Production at one of Libya’s key oilfields has been halted for the second time in as many weeks as fighting escalates in the south-west of the country.

Sharara oilfield had reopened on April 2 after a week-long stoppage blamed on armed groups, but with battles continuing to rage in the area it was again forced to close on Sunday.

The shutdown, which the state-owned National Oil Corporation says was caused by armed groups interfering with pipelines, further affects the country’s sagging oil production, which was 660,000 barrels per day until Sunday’s shutdown.

Meanwhile, both the UN-supported Government of National Accord in Tripoli and the rival government in the eastern town of Bayda near Tobruk are sending reinforcements to a battle for control of the Tamenhint airbase nearby.

The airbase, near the main south-western town of Sabha, is held by pro-GNA forces, but is under attack from the Bayda government’s Libyan National Army commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

After LNA units captured positions close to the base at the weekend, GNA defence minister Al Mahdi Al Barghathi announced the start of Operation Al Amal Al Muad (the Promise of Hope) to push back Field Marshal Haftar’s forces.

Both sides have launched air strikes on each other, and reinforcements are moving along key highways into the area.

At stake is an airbase that will give the side that holds it a key strategic advantage in south-west Libya.

Martin Kobler, chief of the United Nations Support Mission for Libya, is pushing for dialogue between the two governments, and held meetings last week in Tripoli with parliamentarians and senior leaders.

On Monday, Mr Kobler met Morocco’s foreign minister Nasser Bourita for discussions on a way forward for Libya.

Morocco has been a key supporter of Libya’s talks.

“Full agreement that only political solution can bring security & prosperity to all Libyans,” Mr Kobler tweeted after the meeting.

Diplomats hope to persuade the GNA and the Tobruk government to form a 30-strong commission to agree on a new unity government.

One crucial sticking point is the role of Field Marshal Haftar in the new government. The commander is popular in the east of the country, but fiercely opposed by many Tripoli militias.

The credibility of the GNA is also taking a pounding. It arrived in Tripoli on March 30 last year but has failed to establish its authority across the country, fix the economy or tame the capital’s fractious militias.

Italian foreign minister Angelino Alfano, who is hosting a two-day G7 summit which started on Monday, said the leaders would discuss Libya.

Rome is keen to use the G7 meeting to forge consensus among outside powers to encourage Libya’s factions to seek peace.

“In recent years, Libya has always been a priority of ours,” Italian deputy foreign minister Mario Giro told Reuters. “We hope — and at the G7 we will say it — that this issue interests also the US.”

London’s influential Royal Institute for International Affairs, also known as Chatham House, released a bleak assessment of the GNA’s progress on April 6, saying it “has little authority and limited legitimacy in the eyes of many Libyans, and is dependent on a group of Tripolitanian militias for its protection”.

“While the GNA may persevere in the interim, it is clear that, in its current form, it is doing little more than papering over the cracks,” the report said.

Another problem for Libya is a fraying of the international consensus. While outside powers insist they back a unity government, Russia favours Field Marshal Haftar and the Tobruk parliament, while the European Union backs the GNA.

US president Donald Trump has yet to issue a definitive policy statement on Libya, but the subject is likely to come up in discussions when US secretary of state Rex Tillerson heads to Moscow on Tuesday.

Diplomats privately hope that consensus on Libya can start at the top, with an agreement between Moscow and Washington that will bring support for a new unity deal.