Libyan Forces Launch Airstrikes Against Militia to Protect Key Oil Ports

An oil refinery in Libya's northern town of Ras Lanuf on January 11, 2017
AFP/Abdullah DOMA

The Libyan government launched airstrikes on Sunday against a militia group that was attempting to seize the oil terminals at Ras Lanuf and el-Sidr, two key port cities for the Libyan oil industry.

Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) indicated on Friday that the oil terminals were in serious danger of falling under the control of a warlord named Ibrahim Jadhran. Blockades of the ports by Jadhran’s forces have already “cost the Libyan state tens of billions of dollars,” according to the chairman of the NOC. Civilian employees of the oil company were evacuated from both ports as a precaution.

Jadhran is a commander in the Petroleum Facilities Guard, a militia group that was originally concerned with preventing the Islamic State from seizing control of oil infrastructure. On Sunday, he issued a videotaped statement in which he rejected the National Oil Corporation’s authority to order him out of Ras Lanuf and el-Sidr. Jadhran claimed he is leading tribal forces in a righteous crusade against “the terrorist organization of the Dignity Operation,” which is a reference to the military forces of Libyan General Khalifa Haftar.

“We don’t come to the oil crescent region to seek revenge, our Magharba tribesmen want to return to their homes,” Jadhran said. “We did not commit war crimes. We did not arrest civilians. We did not storm houses.”

Jadhran said he has reached out to the Red Crescent to arrange the handover of 20 prisoners taken during clashes with Dignity Operation forces. The Red Crescent confirmed that the remains of 28 dead Dignity Operation fighters have been returned by Jadhran’s group.

Khalifa Haftar is himself an accomplished warlord who aspires to become the strongman leader of a united Libya. The “Dignity Operation” is a push by Haftar’s Libyan National Army to drive militia forces out of the oil crescent. The LNA does not recognize the authority of the internationally-recognized government headquartered in Tripoli.

Some reports of the fighting in Ras Lanuf blame Jadhran’s forces for severely damaging oil storage tanks, while others blame the airstrikes carried out by Haftar’s forces and their allies. The NOC described damage to the oil storage facilities as “catastrophic” and insisted that only the “immediate and unconditional surrender” of Jadhran’s militia can “prevent an environmental disaster and further destruction of key infrastructure.”