Extremist groups escalating attacks in Libya
CAIRO // Libya’s foreign minister has said extremist groups are escalating their attacks and making a renewed push to seize oil resources, after an assault on eastern terminals set storage tanks ablaze, sending massive clouds of black smoke into the sky.
Strong winds were threatening to spread the fire at Al Sidra port — Libya’s largest oil terminal — on Sunday, with the country’s oil and gas ministry warning that thousands of lives were at risk.
Foreign minister Mohamed Dayri, speaking in Cairo on Sunday, said his government’s forces hope to repel the continuing assault by militias based in the western city of Misurata who are loyal to the rival Islamist-backed government in Tripoli. He said extremist groups have joined the attack, which earlier this month forced a shutdown of Al Sidra port, also the country’s largest shipping terminal.
The Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) militia has been attempting to take Al Sidra and the nearby Ras Lanuf terminal since Thursday when it killed at least 22 soldiers in a surprise attack by speedboat.
The oil tanks at Al Sidra caught fire the same day after Libya’s Petroleum Facilities Guard gave Islmatist militias an ultimatum before air strikes and the Islamists fought back with rockets.
Earlier this month, the Tripoli-based government vowed to “liberate” Al Sidra, which is currently under the control of anti-Islamist militiamen allied with the internationally recognised government based in the far eastern city of Tobruk.
Late on Saturday, oil corporation official Mohammed Al Harari said that 850,000 barrels of oil were lost because of the fire in what was then five storage tanks.
By Sunday, however, an oil official said the fire had spread to seven of the terminal’s 19 tanks.
Ali Al Hasy, a spokesman for the Petroleum Facilities Guard, said that international assistance was being sought because the fires may lead to environmental damages in the Mediterranean Sea.
Also on Sunday, forces loyal to the Tobruk government carried out their first air strikes against Misurata, Libya’s third city.
Colonel Ahmed Mesmari said the strikes were in response to a renewed attempt by Fajr Libya on Sunday morning to seize the Al Sidra terminal.
Residents said the air strikes hit the school of aviation close to Misurata airport, the port and a steel plant. Ahmed Al Musmari, military spokesman for the Tobruk-led army, told Libya’s Al Wasat news website that airstrikes targeted bases used to attack his troops.
A security official in Misurata said one missile struck 300 metres from an airport tower but missed the tarmac, adding that the air strike caused the suspension of a Turkish Airlines flight.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Mr Dayri, foreign minister for the Tobruk government, said extremists, some of whom have pledged allegiance to ISIL, have expanded their presence in Libya, including to the capital Tripoli.
“We as Libyans are concerned. But the Arab world and the international community should be too because of the desire of these extremist terrorist groups to reach oil resources and revenues. This is a dangerous matter,” Mr Dayri said.
Libya, the holder of Africa’s largest crude oil reserves, has been in a civil war since 2011 when dictator Muammar Qaddafi died after a 42-year rule. Its second city, Benghazi, is also largely in the hands of militia.
Oil shipments from Al Sidra and Ras Lanuf were halted earlier this month after the Tripoli-based government, led by Omar Al Hassi, ordered the capture of export terminals controlled by prime minister Abdullah Al Thinni’s government in Tobruk.
Since clashes first erupted around the export terminals on December 13, Libya’s oil production has dropped to less than 350,000 barrels per day compared with 800,000 previously, according to industry experts.
UN-sponsored talks between the rival governments are scheduled for January 5.
* Associated Press with additional reporting by Bloomberg and Agence France-Presse