BENGHAZI // The first rebel oil left the port of Tobruk yesterday, a shipment that is expected to reap the rebels $115 million (Dh422m) and start them on the path towards self-sufficiency.
The Greek-owned, Liberian-registered tanker is taking one million barrels of Libyan crude to either Italy or China, said Abdel Jalil Mayouf, director of public relations for the Arabian Gulf Oil Company, or AGOCO. It is the major Libyan national oil company, headquartered in Benghazi and now run by the rebels.
Mr Mayouf said he believes the shipment is part of a deal between the Interim National Transitional Council and Qatar, which has agreed to market rebel oil abroad.
He said the sale will provide the rebels with about $115 million.
The shipment is the first since international coalition air strikes began on March 19 and more consignments are expected to help finance the rebel fight against Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's forces.
Mustafa Gheriani, a spokeman for the rebel leadership, said a new rebel bank account was recently opened abroad to receive the oil payments: "We will use the money to buy food, medicines and weapons," said Mr Gheriani. "We are now producing from 100,000 to 130,000 barrels of crude a day and we hope, under the new deal with Qatar, to increase the output to 300,000."
On Tuesday, the European Union backed the rebel sale of oil, saying that international sanctions apply only to the Qaddafi government.
Michael Mann, spokeman for the EU's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, said: "If the revenues don't reach the Qaddafi regime, we have no issue with commercial dealings in Libyan oil and gas and they should be regulated by normal trade practises."
On the battlefield yesterday, Nato escalated its air campaign a day after a rebel commander criticised the alliance for not doing enough to stop artillery attacks by Colonel Qaddafi's forces that pushed rebels into retreat.
Nato jets planned to fly 198 missions over Libya yesterday, an increase over 155 flown Tuesday, Nato's chief spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu said in a statement. Rebels aiming to end Colonel Qaddafi's 42-year rule and loyalists have been fighting on the coastal road between the Qaddafi stronghold of Sirte and the rebel-held city of Ajdabiyah in the past six weeks.
The French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, called the situation on the ground "confused" and said coalition pilots are having difficulty targeting because both sides are using the same types of pick-up trucks.
Nato is slow "in responding to our instructions" on targets and is failing to "give us what we need," Abdel Fattah Younes, head of the rebel army and Colonel Qaddafi's former interior minister, said at a press conference broadcast on Al Jazeera television. The rebels retreated under heavy fire from Brega, about 241 kilometres south of Benghazi.
Nato's Ms Lungescu said yesterday in a BBC interview that a third of Colonel Qaddafi's military assets "have been destroyed" and that loyalists are now hiding their armour in cities from Nato jets. "They are using human shields in effect," she said.
Britain said it has committed four additional combat jets to the mission after its fighters hit six armoured vehicles and six tanks on Tuesday. Filling the gap "meets Nato's current requirements," the UK Ministry of Defence said.
Jordan has sent fighter aircraft to provide logistical support for the no-fly zone and to protect aid flights from the kingdom, the country's foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, said yesterday. Another government official said six planes were involved.
"The fighter planes were sent to a European base to protect our humanitarian corridor and provide logistical support for the no-fly zone," Mr Judeh told Reuters. "The mission does not have a combat role".
Jordan's Petra news agency said the first Jordanian aid flight landed at Benghazi on Monday.
On the diplomatic front, a former US politician with prior dealings with Colonel Qaddafi was in Tripoli yesterday on a private mission seeking a peace deal that would include the departure of the Libyan leader.
Curt Weldon, a Republican representative from Pennsylvania from 1987 to 2007, said in a New York Times column that he was in Libya "as the leader of a small private delegation, at the invitation of Colonel Qaddafi's chief of staff and with the knowledge of the Obama administration and members of Congress from both parties."
"Our purpose is to meet with Colonel Qaddafi today and persuade him to step aside," he said.
A US official in Washington said the administration of President Barack Obama was aware of the mission but that Mr Weldon was "travelling in a private capacity".
The White House said yesterday that Mr Qaddafi has sent a letter to Mr Obama recently, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said yesterday.
The White House did not respond to questions about the details of the letter.
Despite the oil shipment yesterday, the rebels face challenges distributing oil while the fighting continues, Mr Mayouf said.
He said an attack on rebel-controlled oil fields on Monday damaged a key installation 400 kilometers south-east of Benghazi.
The attack appeared to be an attempt by Colonel Qaddafi to target rebel plans of restarting crude shipments, according to AGOCO officials.
The Misla oil field was hit by heavy artillery and key equipment was disabled. The accident hobbled rebel oil production, knocking it down from a high of 130,000 barrels a day down to 80,000 barrels. AGOCO was producing up to 450,000 barrels before the uprising.
"We were forced to stop the operations. The personnel is scared. Two workers are missing," Mr Mayouf said.
From the oilfield of Misla, a 514 kilometer pipeline, with a capacity of 2.8 millions barrels, cuts eastward through the desert ending at the Tobruk terminal, the only working oil port in rebel-held territory.
Before the fighting began, Libya was exporting 1.6 million barrels of crude a day.
* With additional reporting by Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse, the Associated Press and Reuters