x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Workers flee Libya as uprising escalates

Amid escalating political turmoil and violence in Libya many foreign companies are shutting up shop and evacuating workers.

This handout picture released by ECPAD (The French Defence communication and audiovisual production agency) shows people boarding a French Republic plane chartered to evacuate French citizens from Tripoli in crisis-hit Libya
This handout picture released by ECPAD (The French Defence communication and audiovisual production agency) shows people boarding a French Republic plane chartered to evacuate French citizens from Tripoli in crisis-hit Libya

Scores of foreign companies have shut down operations in Libya and pulled out executives in response to escalating political turmoil and violence across the country.

The unprecedented challenge to Muammar Qaddafi's 41-year rule has led to a mass exodus of foreign companies that came to participate in Libya's oil boom. Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa at more than 44 billion barrels and produces about 1.5 million barrels a day.

"The whole industry will probably shut within days," said a trading strategist with a major European oil company that operates oilfields in Libya.

Eni, the Italian oil and gas outfit with operations in 77 countries, said on Tuesday it was repatriating employees and their relatives and had "temporarily suspended" some of its Libyan operations.

Like other foreign energy companies, Eni won exploration and production contracts in the country following the lifting of sanctions by the UN and US in 2003 and 2004.

The sanctions were scrapped in response to Libya's abandonment of programmes to make weapons of mass destruction and its compensation of victims of the Pan Am 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Spain's Repsol has also halted production, according to a report on Tuesday, joining Suncor Energy of Canada, Total of France, Royal Dutch Shell and Siemens in scaling back or shutting down production and evacuating staff. Wintershall, a unit of Germany's BASF, has also shut down and moved people out.

The shut-down of oil and gas production in Libya and a halt to exports to key European markets has sent oil prices soaring to more than two-year highs in recent days.

Brent crude oil futures for April delivery rose US$4.57 to a high of $110.35 on the ICE Futures Europe exchange in London, breaking a two-and-a-half year high. In New York, the US benchmark price rose $2.55 to $97.97 a barrel.

OMV, the Austrian oil and gas group partly owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, could be heading for a full production shut-down as it pulled staff out.

"We are evaluating the situation. We cannot say at the moment how production is developing exactly," the chief executive, Wolfgang Ruttenstorfer, told a news conference. "It is going down sharply. We do not rule out that it could come to a complete stop for a period of time."

Foreign companies in other industries have also been affected. They include Royal Bam, a Dutch construction and maintenance company, and Yara, a Norwegian fertiliser company that closed Lifeco, its Libyan joint venture.

Yet despite the rush to evacuate workers and secure their safety, some foreigners remain stuck in the country and are appealing to their governments to get them out.

James Coyle, a British oil worker, told the BBC yesterday he was among 300 people trapped at a desert camp in the east of the country and surrounded by armed villagers who were ransacking workers' quarters.

"We are living every day in fear of our lives as the local people are armed," he said, appealing for help from the British government.

A long list of countries, including the UK, have started evacuating their citizens from Libya. David Cameron, the British prime minister, yesterday said Libya was "very dangerous" and that his government was working "flat out" to get people out. The UK sent a charter plane to Libya yesterday as part of a mission to rescue more than 300 British citizens stranded there, according to a BBC report.

As the Libyan exodus proceeds, many foreign companies are reportedly having trouble reaching staff members still in the country. Phone lines are mostly down, and internet service is sporadic. A Dubai-based employee at Lerco, a joint venture between Dubai's Trusta and the Libyan National Oil Corporation that runs a refinery called Ras Lanuf, said communication had been difficult.

"Since the morning I'm trying to get in touch with them but I'm not able to get through," he said on Tuesday. "I'm trying to get in touch on mobile, on landline, but I can't get through."

Attempts to reach the company's executives in Libya yesterday were unsuccessful. Calls to Ali Zoubi, Lerco's human resources director, were met with either busy signals or messages saying calls could not be completed.

afitch@thenational.ae