A militia opposed to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar on Thursday attacked oil sites under his control, inflicting fresh disruption on an industry that forms the chaos-hit country’s economic backbone.
The attack was carried out by the Benghazi Defence Brigades, including fighters driven from Benghazi city by forces loyal to Haftar, a military source said.
Rival political authorities and militias have been vying for control of territory and Libya’s oil wealth since the 2011 uprising that ousted and killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
The latest fighting took place south of Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra, two terminals in eastern Libya severely damaged in clashes between the two groups in 2016 and 2017.
One of the reservoirs was hit by a rocket fired by the attackers and set ablaze, the military source said.
Libya’s National Oil Company said in a statement it had evacuated staff “due to armed clashes in the area”, with production falling around 240,000 barrels per day.
A spokesman for Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army, which controls most of the country’s east, said the attack had been repelled.
“The army and air force have been tracking down the Benghazi terrorist brigades,” who fled the area, the spokesman said. It was not possible to independently verify this information.
The spokesman said the attack aimed to “reduce pressure on the terrorists in Derna”, a coastal city that the LNA has been battling to capture from hardline Islamist fighters since launching an offensive on May 7.
Derna, home to about 150,000 people, is the only major part of eastern Libya outside the LNA’s control and is held by a coalition of jihadist militias, including groups close to Al-Qaeda.
“Haftar’s forces are preoccupied with Derna, hence the timing”, said Jalel Harchaoui, an associate and Libya expert at North Africa Risk Consulting.
The attack on the oil facilities comes after feuding Libyan leaders, including Haftar, agreed to try to hold elections this December in line with plans by the United Nations to stabilise the country.
The UN mission in Libya, or UNSMIL, decried a “dangerous escalation” and said it “puts Libya’s economy in jeopardy and risks igniting a widespread confrontation”.
It also expressed concerns about allegations of serious human rights abuses in Derna.
These included “pillage, destruction of property, arbitrary detention and a video of summary executions,” UNSMIL tweeted, adding that if proven to be true they “could constitute war crimes.”
France, which brokered the election agreement, slammed the attack on the oil sites by “extremists” and said it remained committed to securing a “durable political solution” for Libya.
For its part, the internationally backed government in Tripoli, which opposes Haftar, also condemned the assault.
“This irresponsible escalation pushes the country towards a civil war that all Libyans want to avoid given they have made significant progress towards finding agreement,” said Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
But despite the apparent support from Haftar’s foe, the administration in his eastern fiefdom still alleged the Tripoli government was “behind” the attack.
The assault on oil sites served as a reminder that not everyone in eastern Libya supports Haftar, said Claudia Gazzini, an analyst for International Crisis Group.
“(It could) force redeployment of LNA forces away from Derna in order to allow some anti-LNA fighters… to reposition themselves,” she said.
In September 2016, Haftar’s forces took control of Libya’s four main oil terminals — Zueitina, Brega, Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra.
The terminals were for years blocked by the Petroleum Facilities Guard led by Ibrahim al-Jadhran, opposed to both Haftar and the internationally recognised government.
No oil was exported from these key terminals between the end of 2014 and their re-opening in 2016, costing Libya more than $130 billion (110 billion euros), according to NOC.
In March 2017, the Benghazi Defence Brigades seized control of Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra terminals, only for the LNA to take them back days later.
Jadhran has kept a low profile since 2016, but appeared in a video on social media on Thursday, saying he had formed a coalition to take over the oil sites.
It was not possible to verify immediately whether Jadhran was involved in Thursday’s attack.
The arrival of a tanker to load crude at the Al-Sidra terminal has been postponed and NOC’s board of directors is “following the situation closely,” the oil firm said.