Egyptian authorities are concerned by recent losses sustained by ally Khalifa Haftar in two key oil ports on Libya’s Mediterranean coast.
On Friday forces loyal to Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) lost control of the ports of Sider and Ras Lanuf to a rival faction called the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB).
The Benghazi Defence Brigades are composed partly of Islamist fighters who were ousted from Benghazi by the LNA.
This loss has raised questions about the former exiled-general’s military strength among backers in Egypt, Russia, and the Emirates, according to high-level sources.
It also threatens to stymy plans to revive Libya’s flagging oil sector.
An Egyptian diplomatic source who spoke to The New Arab said that an invite had been issued to Haftar to attend an emergency military meeting in Cairo, set to also include Russian and Emirati representatives, in the coming days.
In 2016 Cairo expressed support for Haftar, and is reported to have sent weapons to the military strongman, in addition to military personnel, in order to train LNA forces.
The meeting is set to be headed by the chief of staff of the Egyptian Army Mohammad Hijazi, and according to the diplomatic source will seek to develop a clear vision to enable Haftar to retake Sider and Ras Lanuf.
Haftar’s LNA had taken Sider and Ras Lanuf, in addition to the Brega and Zueitina oil ports, in September 2016, ending a long blockade of the area, and enabling Libya’s National Oil Corporation to resume pumping.
The source added that talks will additionally focus on potential avenues to de-escalate conflict in Libya, currently host to two rival governments – one in the east of the country, and loyal to Haftar, the other UN-backed and based in Tripoli – and a plethora of militias that have emerged since the toppling of Muammar Gadhafi in an uprising backed by NATO and Arab countries.
In a further development, Egyptian sources who spoke to The New Arab on condition of anonymity said that Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry and representatives of Egypt’s army will further hold talks with Mohammed Siyala, the foreign minister of Libya’s UN backed Government of National Accord later this month concerning trouble at the key oil terminals.
This meeting is set to take place on the side of an Arab League meeting set to take place in Jordan at the end of March.
Focus on Benghazi
Military realities on the ground around Sider and Ras Lanuf on Monday remained unclear.
Officials from the LNA told Anadolu that its forces had retaken Ras Lanuf airport and were sending further reinforcements to the front.
LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari also called on citizens in the region to restrict their movement, and also appealed to armed groups in Sirte – around 180 km east of Sider – to remain within the coastal town to avoid air raids being conducted.
However, claims of LNA advances were disputed by a general within the Bengazhi Defence Brigades who spoke to The New Arab.
Mustafa Shirkasy said that the Benghazi Defence Brigades remained in control of the entire area surrounding the two oil ports including Bin Jawad, located west of Ras Lanuf, speaking on Monday.
While clashes were taking place on the ground between the Benghazi Defence Brigades and the LNA, said Shirkasy, particularly east of Ras Lanuf, airstrikes carried out by forces loyal to Haftar had not resulted in serious damage, or swayed the conflict in the LNA’s favour.
Shirkasy additionally said that it was not the intention of the Benghazi Defence Brigades to remain in Sider and Ras Lanuf indefinitely, instead stating that the oil terminals should come under the control of the country’s National Oil Corporation.
“The focus of our troops is the city of Benghazi,” said Shirkasy.
The Benghazi Defence Brigades claims that its current military advances are aimed at facilitating the return of internally displaced people from Benghazi, where LNA forces have previously battled against Islamist militias.
They have gained some support, including from Libya’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Sadiq al-Gharyani, according to reports in the Libya Observer.
Although the GNA condemned the outbreak of violence in Sider and Ras Lanuf on Friday, it has also faced accusations from some in the east of the country of backing the Benghazi Defence Brigades.
Libya’s oil production has more than doubled from last year. However, the current conflict around Sider and Ras Lanuf threatens to drastically slow production at a time when the country’s National Oil Corporation is seeking to restore output to pre-2011 levels.