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Libya’s eastern army seizes control of key oil ports

General Khalifa Haftar's seizure of key oil ports could potentially lead the country further down the path of partition
A member of a brigade loyal to Khalifa Haftar stands during fighting alongside Libyan army troops (AFP)

TRIPOLI - Forces loyal to Libya’s eastern government on Sunday seized control of two oil export terminals on the country’s central coastline after launching a surprise attack in the early hours of this morning, according to its army spokesman. 

“We have taken control of the ports of Ras Lanuf and Sidra, including all facilities in this area, as well as the southern and eastern checkpoints for Ajdabiya,” spokesman for the eastern government’s armed forces Colonel Ahmed al-Mismari told MEE. “There is now fighting around the port of Zueitina.”

There are ongoing clashes at a third oil port.

All three oil ports have been under the control of Ibrahim Jadhran, who heads the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) - a grouping of brigades responsible for securing Libya’s oil facilities - for two-and-a-half years.

Since seizing control of the ports in summer 2013, over a dispute about PFG salaries and benefits, he has kept the facilities largely closed, becoming a controversial figure with whom successive Libyan governments have been forced to negotiate. 

Most recently, he pledged support for Libya’s newest governing body, the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), partially supporting its operation against the Islamic State (IS) group in central Libya and agreeing to restart oil exports. 

Jadhran’s long-term blockade of the oil ports has crippled Libya’s hydrocarbon industry. In January this year, the country's National Oil Company head Mustafa Sanallah estimated losses in oil revenue from the PFG blockade alone were $50 billion.

Libyan armed forces, operating under the eastern government’s Commander-in-Chief General Khalifa Haftar, had been grouping in the desert south of the oil ports for months, taking steady control over a number of oil fields.

Although local people said the takeover of the ports had been planned for months, and was even announced in mid-August, the PFG forces guarding the ports were on Sunday taken by surprise.

Coming the day before Eid when many people, including military and security personnel, are heading home to their families, the assault appears to have been carefully timed.

“In Ras Lanuf there was no fighting at all. When the soldiers advanced, the PFG just abandoned their position, vehicles and weapons, and ran away,” said Ras Lanuf resident Hakeem. “The eastern government’s forces had some modest resistance at Sidra oil port but there was just half an hour of fighting before the PFG fled.” 

The greatest resistance has been at Zueitina, one of Libya’s largest oil-export terminals.

“The army has the port surrounded but they are holding back from heavy fighting because they want the PFG to surrender but, if they refuse, the LNA will have no choice but to fight heavily,” he said.

After a series of meetings with senior tribal leaders over the past few months, Haftar had reportedly guaranteed that there would be no retribution or punishment for any PFG members who either surrendered or fled, as long as they first handed over their weapons. 

Hakeem claimed many local people, who have remained quietly loyal to Libya’s eastern-based government, welcomed the takeover. Few, he said, had enjoyed Jadhran’s control over the area.

Most local family incomes had been dependent on the oil ports, the main employers in the region, and, with the ports under force majeure for over two years, most had lost their full salaries, devastating the local economy. 

Further fighting was also expected in Ajadbiya, Jadhran’s hometown, which the army would need to fully control to secure their position in the area, Hakeem said. He added that much of the town also supported the eastern government - still viewed as Libya’s only democratically-elected governing body - rather than the GNA.

Local resident Mohammed, who drove from Ras Lanuf to Bin Jawad this morning, said that Haftar’s armed forces had also taken over outlying checkpoints formerly manned by the PFG. “It reminded me a bit of the old days of the Gaddafi army checkpoints,” he said. “They were very professional, efficient and polite.”

Mohammed predicted that the armed forces could rapidly move further west, towards Sirte, where GNA-backed forces are battling against IS militants.

“Jadhran’s PFG technically liberated this area from IS, up to the eastern borders of Sirte, but in reality, IS took their vehicles and weapons and just left,” he said. “But since then this area has been left largely unsecured, from Bin Jawad to Sirte [150 km], so it would be easy for Haftar to take control.”

He said the eastern government’s army might also be planning to flush out former IS militants now believed to be in hiding, protected by their families.

Mohammed said he doubted GNA forces, already thinly-stretched fighting in Sirte or securing Tripoli - also the scene of clashes this weekend between rival armed groups - would be able to quickly pull together an adequate force to take on Haftar’s army. The only threat, he said, could come from a rogue brigade of unclear allegiance, which, after relocating from Benghazi, is now reportedly stationed south of Sirte.  

“What has happened today is a very serious development, which could be the start of another major civil conflict or even the division of Libya,” Mohammed said. “But I don’t think Haftar would ever accept dividing Libya and he does have a lot of support across eastern and southern Libya.” Crucially, this included some of Libya’s largest Beduin tribes, living in central and southern Libya, who wielded a lot of power and influence," he explained. 

Today’s takeover of the oil ports left hundreds of Libyan travellers, trying to reach home for Eid, stranded, both at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport and at Brega airport near Sidra, after airlines cancelled most internal flights as a security measure. Some travellers grouped together to share taxis for seven-hour drives back to Ras Lanuf or Bin Jawad, with a lengthy diversion around Sirte.

“Eid is a family time, so we have to find a way to get home,” said Ahmed, speaking from outside Mitiga Airport. “This was a very inconvenient time for ordinary people but clearly a great time for the army.”