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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Libya’s eastern forces on the march to retake oil ports

Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar given backing – and recruits – by eastern region's tribal leaders.
The industrial zone at the Libyan port of Ras Lanuf, which is vital to the country’s oil exports. Esam Omran Al Fetori / Reuters / January 11, 2017
The industrial zone at the Libyan port of Ras Lanuf, which is vital to the country’s oil exports. Esam Omran Al Fetori / Reuters / January 11, 2017

Eastern Libyan forces have launched a counter attack to try to regain key oil ports captured last week by Benghazi militias, with reports of fighting in the desert as armoured brigades move forward.

Jets from the Libya National Army (LNA) struck the ports of Ras Lanuf and Sidra on Friday afternoon, according to eyewitnesses in Ras Lanuf town. The offensive by the LNA, commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, was launched on Thursday night after a meeting of tribal elders in the eastern town of Benghazi endorsed it and pledged troops from the eastern region’s militias.

“The mood was angry, it was urgent, they signalled support [for the offensive],” said one attendee at the meeting.

Sidra and Ras Lanuf were captured from Field Marshal Haftar’s forces last Friday by the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), a militia that is originally from Benghazi but was driven out by the LNA last year.

The BDB then handed control of the ports to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which is opposed by the eastern parliament, the House of Representatives, which in turn controls the LNA.

Photographs released in the early hours of Friday showed units of the LNA’s 106 infantry brigade driving through the desert, as well as what were claimed to be weapons and ammunition captured from BDB units.

Fighting was reported to be intense at Al Ugaylah, a small coastal settlement 60 kilometres east of Ras Lanuf that has become a front line between the two forces.

Sidra and Ras Lanuf are key ports for the so-called Oil Crescent, a mass of oilfields stretching over much of eastern Libya which produce much of the country’s oil. Both of them were closed this week by Libya’s National Oil Corporation, with incoming tankers diverted to other ports.

The BDB says it intends to launch an offensive of its own, pushing eastward from the ports down the coast against the LNA with the objective of capturing Benghazi. “Our main goal is to retake our city, we reject injustice and military rule,” said BDB commander Mustafa Al Sharksi.

The BDB released footage of a convoy of families who fled Benghazi last year arriving at its positions near the oil ports on Wednesday, hopeful of following the brigade’s planned return to the city.

Meanwhile, a statement from the GNA defence ministry in Tripoli on Friday announced it would send its own brigades from west and south Libya to reinforce the oil ports and oppose the LNA advance.

Mediation efforts are also under way. On Thursday General Paolo Serra, military adviser to the United Nations Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL), met GNA officials in Tripoli to discuss port security, while mission chief Martin Kobler called for peace talks and called on all parties to respect the rules of war with no hostage-taking, no arbitrary detentions and no summary executions.

Yet opinions are hardening on all sides. In Tobruk, where the House of Representatives is based, the municipal council began collecting weapons on Thursday from civilians and local militias to send to the LNA front-line units.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae