Tribesmen, Warlords, Government Troops Face Off at Libya’s Largest Oil Field

Clashes at Libya oil sites cause 'catastrophic losses'
AFP/Abdullah DOMA

Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) on Friday urged all factions to stand down from a military confrontation as tribesmen and government troops occupied different parts of El Sharara, the country’s largest oil field.

The NOC said operations at the oil field will remain suspended until the safety of its employees can be guaranteed.

“Worker safety remains our primary concern. We urge all parties to avoid conflict and the politicization of key infrastructure,” said NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla in a statement on Friday.

Several armed parties are camped in different parts of El Sharara, doing their level best to politicize this vital element of Libya’s infrastructure. Armed tribesmen rolled into the oilfield in December, angry at the government in Tripoli for not addressing their impoverished condition.

After former U.S. President Barack Obama’s disastrous intervention, Libyans found themselves with a choice of several governments to be angry at. Warlord Khalifa Haftar, the dominant force in eastern Libya and aspiring ruler of the entire country, soon made a play to add El Sharara to his impressive oil portfolio and claimed he was able to conquer the vast oil field without a fight. Local media reported that at least five people were killed while Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) swept peacefully into town.

The rival Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, the one recognized by the United Nations and the international community, denounced Haftar’s land grab and sent its own forces to El Sharara. The LNA claimed it has total control of the region and implied it would shoot down aircraft that attempt to land at the nearby airfield without permission, which would prevent the NOC from bringing in security forces.

On the other hand, an engineer working at El Sharara told Reuters the LNA actually controls only one pumping substation about 12 miles from the main field while armed tribesmen and demonstrators occupy the rest of the region.

The El Sharara field, which is normally good for about 315,000 barrels of oil per day, has been shut down ever since tribesmen and protesters arrived on December 8. Libyan oil production overall is still only a little over half of its peak production before Obama’s intervention. The NOC has ambitions to restore full national production by 2021, but that obviously will not be possible unless the country’s largest oilfield is secured.

The timing of the El Sharara crisis is most inconvenient because the GNA is struggling to hold municipal elections in March and national elections later this year in a bid to unify the country. The government was forced to admit this week that it cannot afford to hold elections in 69 of Libya’s 120 municipal councils.

Haftar’s troops reportedly exchanged fire with GNA forces on Thursday. If he can lock down El Sharara and add it to the “oil crescent” he already controls, he will have a stranglehold on the Libyan economy and a plausible shot at making elections irrelevant by seizing control of the entire country.

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