By John Pearson
The battle for control of Libya’s key oil ports has taken a dramatic new turn with the militias who captured them on Friday handing them over to the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
Five days after seizing the central ports of Sidra and Ras Lanuf from the Libyan National Army, the Benghazi Defence Brigades militias declared late on Tuesday that both were now under control of the GNA, which is based in Tripoli.
The GNA has dispatched a force – the Petroleum Facilities Guard – to the ports, with its commander, Idris Bukhamada, arriving at Ras Lanuf late on Tuesday. He declared his force was neutral, saying: “Our mission is only to secure the work of the National Oil Corporation (the state oil company).”
His deployment was supported by Benghazi Defence Brigades, who are officially independent, with their leader, Colonel Mustafa Al Sharksi, endorsing support for the GNA.
The National Oil Corporation is meanwhile in confusion. A militia backing the so-called National Salvation Government, which is vying for control of the capital with the GNA, remains inside the corporation’s Tripoli headquarters. Sources there say some staff are failing to turn up for work fearing for their safety, while the corporation’s chairman, Mustafa Sanallah, has demanded militia leave the building.
Libya’s elected House of Representatives parliament, which controlled the ports until Friday’s attack, condemned the move to hand them to the GNA, with its spokesman Abdullah Ablaihig calling the militia ports seizure “terrorist attacks”. The Tobruk-based House of Representatives has its own government, which rivals the GNA.
In retaliation for the ports seizure, the House of Representatives voted late on Tuesday to suspend Article One of the Libyan Political Agreement, a power-sharing plan supported by the United Nations Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) to unite the country.
Article One stipulates the names of the GNA’s nine-strong Presidential Council, headed by designated prime minister Fayez Al Sarraj who is based in Tripoli.
The move is likely to deepen a rift between the GNA and the House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, the Libyan National Army, which is loyal to the House of Representatives and commanded by Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, remains deployed at Al Uqaylah, a coastal settlement 60 kilometres east of Ras Lanuf. Field Marshall Haftar is massing 5,000 troops for a proposed counter-offensive although no decision to launch it has yet been made public.
The National Oil Corporation closed the Sidra and Ras Lanuf ports on Friday following their capture by the Benghazi Defence Brigades militias, and diverted tankers to other ports. Libya’s oil production fell over the weekend from 700,000 barrels per day to 650,000 because of the ports’ capture, but the National Oil Corporation said on Wednesday that production had increased slightly to 680,000 bpd.
Italy, which has major assets in Libya through its ENI oil company, welcomed GNA control of the ports. Its embassy tweeted: “PC (Presidential Council) forces deployment in the Oil Crescent is a step in the right direction. No more fight. LPA (Libyan Political Agreement) is the only framework to solve Libya crisis.” Other major powers have yet to comment.
Meanwhile, UNSMIL chief Martin Kobler called for dialogue to end the fighting around the ports.
“The immediate priority is to de-escalate tensions,” he said.
John Pearson – Foreign Correspondent