By Andrew England
United Arab Emirates-based companies shipped nearly 11,000 tonnes of jet fuel to eastern Libya, the stronghold of the renegade general Khalifa Haftar, in a suspected violation of an international arms embargo, according to documents seen by the Financial Times.
The shipment, under investigation by a UN panel of experts, had a market value of nearly $5m at the time it was loaded in the UAE and was delivered last month to the city of Benghazi, the headquarters of Gen Haftar’s offensive.
Stephanie Williams, the acting UN envoy to Libya, told the FT that in the UN’s judgment the jet fuel was considered to be “combat supplies” and the shipment to eastern Libya could constitute a violation of the embargo.
Diplomats have for months complained of what they describe as repeated and blatant violations of the arms embargo by foreign powers, including the UAE, backing the different sides in the Libyan conflict.
The shipping and cargo documents seen by the FT provide rare details on three of the companies that may be involved.
The documents state the supplier of the fuel was Afrifin Logistics FZE, based in Sharjah, one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE.
It was loaded on to MT Gulf Petroleum 4, a Liberian-flagged tanker operated by Gulf Shipping Services FZC, the documents show.
UN officials confirmed the companies involved are registered in the UAE and the fuel was supplied in UAE territory but declined to confirm the names of the firms.
UN investigations were ongoing to determine how the financial transactions were conducted and identify those involved, the officials said. The FT could not verify the authenticity of the documents.
The FT could not identify a website for Afrifin and a woman who answered a telephone number listed on online directories said she had no connection to the company.
Gulf Shipping FZC also does not appear to have a website and could not be contacted directly, but an online shipping register lists the company as based in Ajman, another of the UAE’s emirates.
Diligencia, a UK-based corporate data provider that specialises in the Middle East, identified a company thought to be a major shareholder in Gulf Shipping but that firm did not respond to emailed questions sent by the FT and did not answer when contacted by telephone.
The jet fuel was offloaded in Benghazi on March 16 as Gen Haftar’s forces increased air strikes and missile attacks on Tripoli. His self-styled Libyan National Army, backed by the UAE, Egypt and Russia, has laid siege to the capital for a year seeking to oust the UN-backed national government.
Libyan officials in Tripoli allege the UAE has continued to fly munitions and military equipment to Gen Haftar despite a January agreement among foreign powers to cease interference.
The UAE government, which increased its support for Gen Haftar after Turkey, a regional rival, sent troops and support to Tripoli, did not respond to a request for comment.
The documents show the fuel was ordered by a company called Libyan Express Airlines. The FT was unable to identify any company currently operating under that name.
Libyan Express, a private airline that operates in west Libya, including air ambulances, said it had no operations in Benghazi and was not involved in the fuel shipment.
After offloading the fuel, the vessel developed a technical fault and is being held in the port of Misurata, which is controlled by forces loyal to the UN-backed government in Tripoli, pending an investigation for alleged sanctions-breaking, Libyan officials have said.
Ms Williams, the UN envoy, said: “We are very concerned about this incident given that the illicit import of jet fuel by the parallel eastern National Oil Corporation would very likely be used to support LNA air force operations, as the legitimate Tripoli-based NOC is already supplying sufficient amounts of jet fuel for commercial use.”
With the country divided, Gen Haftar’s forces in the east have established a rival oil company to the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation, which is recognised internationally as the sole legitimate importer and exporter of fuels to and from Libya.
The NOC told the FT that there was no civilian justification for importing jet fuel into eastern Libya.
The NOC refines jet fuel and has said it supplied 73,000 tonnes to eastern Libya last year to fuel commercial aircraft, despite a reduction in air traffic due to the conflict.
From 2015 to 2018, the NOC said it supplied about 45,000 to 50,000 metric tonnes of aviation fuel per year to the east.
“The NOC is the only entity legally allowed to import fuels into Libya and NOC always ensures that there is enough fuel for civil aviation demand across the country,” the company said.
“This comes from local refineries and when needed we import jet fuel but that is very rare. We confirm that there was no shortage of jet fuel in any part of Libya in recent years.”
Andrew England is the Financial Times Middle East Editor. He was previously Middle East and Africa news editor. Prior to that, he spent 17 years based in the Middle East and Africa as a foreign correspondent. His posts included Southern Africa bureau chief Abu Dhabi bureau chief and Middle East and North Africa correspondent.