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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Libya’s unity government calls on UN to block ‘illegal’ oil sales

A rival administration has taken control of two oil ports and claimed future revenues for itself

Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who dominates eastern Libya, arrives to attend an international conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 29, 2018. Philippe Wojazer / Reuters
Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who dominates eastern Libya, arrives to attend an international conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 29, 2018. Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

Libya’s UN-backed government warned Tuesday against attempts by the eastern government to export oil independently and called on the UN Security Council to block any “illegal” oil sales, after the rival administration took control of two key oil ports.

On Monday, the Libyan National Army (LNA), commanded by Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, announced the ports of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, which it captured last week from a militia, were under the control of eastern Libya’s Interim Government.

The internationally recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli had previously administered the ports. The head of its National Oil Corporation (NOC), Mustafa Sanallah, said attempts by the east to sell oil would be resisted.

"Exports by parallel institutions are illegal and will fail as they have failed in the past," he said.

Army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Mismari said the army had decided to hand the ports to the eastern government because, while the ports were under Tripoli’s control, oil revenues were used to fund the militia who fought to capture it last week.

The militia, the Petroleum Facilities Guard, led by Ibrahim Jathran, captured the ports on June 12, but were thrown out on Friday by the army in an offensive backed by air strikes in fighting that left two storage tanks ablaze.

Now the army says it needs to take action to prevent funding for Jathran to strike again, accusing him of hiring Chadian mercenaries to help attack the ports.

In a televised broadcast, Colonel Mismari said no tanker would be allowed to dock at the ports without permission from the eastern government. Es Sider is Libya’s biggest export port, and together with Ras Lanuf is the key outlet for production from the so-called Oil Crescent, a vast network of oil fields in eastern Libya that accounts for two thirds of the country’s oil production.

The eastern government has its own version of the NOC, based in the city of Benghazi. Its chief, Faraj Said, told Reuters: “We are legitimate.”

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But Mr Sanallah insisted that only the Tripoli NOC is legitimate.

“The LNA has decided to put itself above the law,” he claimed in a statement.

"UN Security Council resolutions are very clear – oil facilities, production and exports must remain under the exclusive control of (the Tripoli-based) NOC and the sole oversight of the Government of National Accord," Mr Sanalla said.

"We are confident that the GNA and our international partners will take the necessary steps to stop all exports in breach of international law."

The issue is a sensitive one because the ports have been fought over four times in four years of civil war. The LNA captured them from Mr Jathran in September 2016, and has twice repelled counter attacks by his forces, one this month and the first in March last year.

Until now, Libya’s oil revenues went to Tripoli, which pays the salaries of not just the eastern army but a number of militias in western Libya.

In June last year, the UN’s Panel of Experts said Mr Jathran had given state resources to Ansar Al Sharia, an Al Qaeda-aligned militant group blamed by the US government for the killing of its Libya ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012.

“It (AQ) has grown with the creation of Ansar Al Sharia branches in Sirte and Ajdabiya, where they benefited from State resources provided by Khaled Al Sharif and Ibrahim Jadhran, respectively,” said the UN panel report. Mr Al Sharif is a former Libyan deputy defence minister.

The UN has decreed that only Tripoli has the right to Libya’s oil revenues. Earlier this month the United States also said the GNA must remain in charge of Libya’s oil: “These vital Libyan resources must remain under the exclusive control of the National Oil Corporation and the sole oversight of the Government of National Accord.”

Eastern Libya’s government, which refuses to recognise the Tripoli government, tried to sell oil independently in 2015, but foreign oil buyers could not be found, many put off by the prospect of UN sanctions.

It is uncertain if a new effort to sell oil independently will fare any better. Under Mr Sanallah, the NOC has managed to improve Libyan oil production from 330,000 barrels a day to over one million, and diplomats fear that if the oil industry is split between the Tripoli and eastern governments, it may fragment.

Outside powers are likely to prefer that Tripoli keep sole control of the industry, as they try and persuade Libya’s factions to unite behind a pledge, agreed at Paris peace talks last month overseen by French president Emmanuel Macron, to hold elections in December.