The Libyan National Army (LNA) has recaptured the country’s largest oil port and a neighbouring refinery, but the rival militias it ousted have since launched a fierce counter attack. LNA chief Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar declared “zero hour” on forces “allied with the devil,” who captured the oil port of Sidra and the neighbouring Ras Lanuf refinery in Libya’s central coastal region last week.
LNA airstrikes had already hit a number of targets held by militia leader Ibrahim Jadhran over the last few days, but Haftar’s announcement marked the start of operations on the ground. The LNA seemingly captured the terminals with ease but Jadhran has since claimed it was a deliberate ploy to launch a counter-offensive. Frontlines moved rapidly but it is now understood fighting is focused on the Wadi Khaleelah residential area bordering Ras Lanuf, although officially both sides continue to insist they have each other surrounded. At least one oil storage tank has been destroyed and another caught fire, adding to the additional two ruined last week.
Some seven LNA soldiers died but Jadhran forces said it had killed more than 20, including two colonel’s, and captured a number of troops. Local residents reported seeing LNA jets circling the area and military sources insist both Sidra and Ras Lanuf refinery remained under their control.
Jadhran, allied with Chadian mercenaries and an Islamist group, known as the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), which has links to Al-Qaeda and Ansar Al-Sharia, took the terminals from the LNA last week in a surprise offensive. Jadhran gained infamy from 2013-2016 when his forces blockaded the same terminals and tried to sell oil to North Korea, a move that officials said cost Libya around $100 billion.
Mustafa Sanalla, the head of Libya's National Oil Corporation (NOC) has nonetheless lifted force majeure at the terminals and initially said shipments could resume in the next couple of days. However, it is unclear if this target will be stuck to given Jadhran's counter-attack.
Event’s over the last week caused exports to fall from just over one million barrels per day (bpd) to about 600,000 bpd. Sidra is capable of shipping some 450,000 bpd and Ras Lanuf has the ability to refine 220,000 bpd. However, a fire caused by the clashes last week destroyed two tanks at Ras Lanuf resulting in a fall of storage capacity from 950,000 barrels to 550,000. “Rebuilding the tanks could take years” at the “loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in construction costs, and billions in lost sales opportunities,” the NOC said.
Condemnation of Jadhran’s assault on the oil terminals was swift, with the UK’s ambassador to Libya launching an unprecedented verbal attack. “It is a tragedy for Libya and the Libyan people. We have had terrorists who have gone in and destroyed a part of the country which is critical,” said Frank Baker.
The assault came as the LNA began to close on the city of Derna, the final stronghold in eastern Libya out of its grasp. At least four soldiers from the 212 division were killed when a man waving a white flag detonated a suicide belt. LNA spokesman Maj Gen Ahmed Mismari claimed that the rival militants were now holed up in an area no large than a square kilometre. Derna has been under the control of a coalition of Islamist groups for two years who are allied with the BDB militants fighting alongside Jadhran in the oil terminals but are opposed to Islamic State.
It had been claimed Jadhran's attack sought to take pressure off of Derna but Maj Gen Mismari told The National that, even if true, the plan had failed. "Our operations in Derna were never affected by events in the oil crescent. A small area in Derna is still under fire but will end very soon."