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Fresh clashes at key Libya oil ports threaten political push

LIBYA-CONFLICT
AFP

Benghazi (Libya) (AFP) – Fresh clashes in Libya’s oil crescent — the country’s economic heart — undermine an international political push and could complicate efforts to bridge deep-set divisions, analysts say.  

Armed groups led by militia leader Ibrahim Jadhran on Thursday attacked two northeastern oil facilities controlled by strongman Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army. 

The violence at the Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra terminals has caused “catastrophic damage”, according to the National Oil Company. 

The flare up comes just weeks after rival Libyan leaders sparked hope of progress for their conflict-wracked nation by agreeing during a French-led summit in Paris to hold nationwide elections in December.

The deal struck by four key powerbrokers — including Haftar and the head of an internationally backed government in Tripoli — was in line with a United Nations plan to stabilise the country.  

But scepticism was high from the start and experts say the latest clashes underscore how little the political push has impacted the situation on the ground. 

Federica Saini Fasanotti, of the Washington-based Brookings Institute, said there are “two different realities” when it comes to Libya.  

“One is made by international agreement, conferences…and many, too many, words in the sky,” she said.

“The other one is made by simple facts on the ground.”

Libya has been gripped by chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, with rival administrations and multiple militias vying for control of the oil-rich country.

Haftar supports an administration based in the east, which opposes the internationally recognised government in Tripoli.

Jadhran’s Petroleum Facilities Guard controlled the oil terminals for years following the 2011 ouster of Kadhafi — but they were eventually forced out by the LNA in September 2016.

In a video posted last week on social media, 35-year-old Jadhran — a member of the Al-Magharba tribe, largely based in the oil crescent — said he had formed a new alliance to take the control of the crude corridor. 

– ‘High stakes’ –

Despite his absence from the battlefield since 2016, Jadhran “never gave up”, said analyst Fasanotti. 

“The stakes are too high because they mean the control of Cyrenaica and its oil,” she said, referring to Libya’s eastern half.

Sources close to the LNA have said an alliance could be in the works between Jadhran and the Benghazi Defence Brigades, made up of Islamist fighters driven from the city east of the oil crescent by Haftar’s forces last summer. 

The LNA has accused its rivals of launching attacks on the oil sites “to ease pressure on terrorists in Derna”, where Haftar’s forces have been battling hardline militias for control of the city since last month. 

Despite the Tripoli-based government quickly denouncing the assault, pro-Haftar forces even accused it of plotting the offensive. 

For some, suspicions over the latest violence have gone even further.  

“The attack… was planned by the intelligence services of states that do not want the return of stability in Libya,” said Tarek el-Jerouchi, a member of the country’s eastern parliament, pointing to Italy, Turkey and Qatar. 

“Some states have not welcomed the conclusions of the Paris meeting… especially the decision to set a timetable for presidential and parliamentary elections that could lift Libya out of its current crisis,” he said. 

– ‘Two different realities’ –

The resumption of fighting near the terminals — already damaged by violence in 2016 and 2017 — is also yet another blow to Libya’s tattered economy, as Libyans struggle with low wages and price hikes. 

Oil expert Saad al-Fessi called it a “dangerous setback for the oil sector, which has recently managed to recover with a significant increase in production”. 

The NOC halted exports on Thursday from the two damaged terminals.

The firm’s chief, Mustafa Sanalla, said Wednesday the clashes had cause oil output to drop by 450,000 barrels — nearly half the national production. 

Libya’s economy relies heavily on oil, with production at 1.6 million barrels per day under Kadhafi.

His ouster saw production fall to about 20 percent of that level, before recovering to more than one million barrels per day by the end of 2017.

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