East Libyan forces advance to retake oil ports

FILE PHOTO: A view shows Ras Lanuf Oil and Gas Company in Ras Lanuf, Libya, March 16, 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori/File Photo

BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – East Libyan forces said on Thursday they had retaken the shuttered oil ports of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, hours after clashes resumed south of Ras Lanuf during a counter-attack by rival factions.

Staff were evacuated from terminals in Libya’s eastern oil crescent and exports were suspended last Thursday when armed opponents of eastern-based military commander Khalifa Haftar stormed the ports and occupied them.

Haftar, who built up his Libyan National Army (LNA) during his three-year campaign to seize the eastern city of Benghazi, is one of the figures vying for power in Libya since the country fragmented following a NATO-backed uprising in 2011.

He has received increased international recognition since seizing the oil crescent ports in 2016 and allowing the National Oil Corp (NOC) to reopen them, despite his rejection of a U.N.-backed government in the capital Tripoli.

The fate of the ports, two of Libya’s largest, is crucial to the partial, fragile recovery of the country’s oil industry. Their closure has led to production losses of up to 450,000 barrels per day (bpd) from a total national output of little over one million bpd.

Two oil storage tanks had been set on fire since the initial attack, causing damage that the National Oil Corporation (NOC) has said will take years to repair. On Thursday, an engineer and local witness confirmed that a third tank had started burning, after thick black smoke was seen rising over Ras Lanuf.

For the past week the LNA had pounded the area with air strikes as it mobilized to retake the ports, and it continued to target its rivals with air strikes on Thursday as they retreated.

LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said troops had retaken Es Sider by mid-morning.

He said Ras Lanuf – which includes a residential town, an air strip, storage tanks and a refinery alongside the oil terminal – had also been taken by the LNA, as rivals had fled to the west and south into the desert, suffering heavy losses.

Military and local sources said clashes had resumed south of Ras Lanuf when the LNA’s opponents counter-attacked, before Mismari asserted that the LNA was again in command of the area by late afternoon.

“The oil crescent is, thanks to God, under full control,” he said.

Medical and military sources confirmed 15 dead and 25 wounded among LNA forces.