Libyan oil guard head says asked to protect oil ports after clashes

Benghazi Defence Brigades leader Mustafa al-Sharksi attends a news conference, Libya, March 6, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
Benghazi Defence Brigades leader Mustafa al-Sharksi attends a news conference, Libya, March 6, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

By Ayman al-Warfalli

BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - An oil guard official appointed by Libya's U.N.-backed government said on Tuesday that he had been tasked with protecting oil ports by an armed faction that took over Es Sider and Ras Lanuf terminals last week.

Idris Bukhamada, recently named by the Government of National Accord as the head of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, told local TV that export operations at the ports were continuing and that the oil was for all Libyans.

He was speaking after east Libyan forces carried out air strikes for a fifth day against the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), the faction that overran the ports. The eastern-based Libyan National Army and the BDB have been battling for control in Libya's eastern Oil Crescent since Friday, threatening output from oil ports that the LNA seized in September.

A senior official from Libya's National Oil Corporation (NOC) said on Monday that production had dipped by 35,000 barrels per day (bpd) due to the latest unrest, leaving national production at just over 660,000 bpd.

OPEC member Libya was producing more than 1.6 million bpd before a 2011 uprising led to political turmoil and conflict that slashed output to a fraction of earlier levels.

"We have been tasked by the BDB to protect the oil ports," Bukhamada said, adding his oil guard belonged to the state and had no military mission.

"I reassure all companies and NOC partners that export operations are continuing and have not stopped," he told Libyan TV channel Al Nabaa.

Since the BDB attacked on Friday, a front line has formed at the center of the Oil Crescent, between the ports of Ras Lanuf and Brega. The Libyan National Army still controls Brega as well as a fourth port, Zueitina, which lies to the northeast.

It says it is using air strikes to prepare the ground for a counter-attack.

Libyan National Army spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said the latest strikes had hit targets from the BDB at Ras Lanuf and at Nawfiliya, 75 km (45 miles) to the west.

A resident and a military official in Ras Lanuf confirmed the air strikes, but said there had been no change to the positions of the rival factions on the ground.

A social media account used by the BDB said the group "is protecting all its positions, and controls the area from Nawfiliya to beyond Ras Lanuf".

The Libyan National Army ended long blockades at Zueitina, Ras Lanuf and Es Sider when it took them over seven months ago, leading to a sharp boost to oil production.

Es Sider and Ras Lanuf were badly damaged in previous rounds of fighting and are still operating well below capacity.

The current battle threatens to enflame a long-running, low intensity conflict between political and military factions based in eastern and western Libya, which the U.N.-backed government has failed to solve.

The BDB is partly made up of fighters who were ousted from Benghazi by the Libyan National Army, whose commander Khalifa Haftar has been waging a three-year military campaign in the city against Islamists and other rivals.

On Tuesday 39 members of Libya's eastern parliament, which is aligned with the LNA, voted to withdraw from a U.N.-backed dialogue process following the BDB attack.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli and Aidan Lewis in Tunis; Editing by Alison Williams)

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