Four killed as Libya rival forces clash over control of eastern oil ports

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Published Sunday, December 14, 2014

Four people were killed and seven injured in airstrikes by forces loyal to Libya's recognized government on Saturday, targeting near the eastern oil ports of Ras Lanuf and al-Sider to stop an advance by a rival force, officials said.

Workers evacuated the al-Sider port, the country's biggest export terminal with a capacity of more than 400,000 barrels a day, a worker said.

Almost four years after a NATO-backed war ended Muammar Gaddafi's one-man rule in 2011, Libya is struggling with instability as two rival administrations compete for power and warring armed factions skirmish for control of territory across the North African state.

Libya has two governments and parliaments competing for legitimacy since an Islamist group called Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) seized Tripoli in August, installing its cabinet and forcing the recognized Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani to the east.

At stake are control of Libya's government and the country's vast oil reserves.

Forces loyal to the rival government in Tripoli have launched an operation to take the oil ports and expel the forces of former army General Khalifa Haftar allied to Thani, its commander Tarek Shnaina told Reuters.

"We are a third force commissioned by the chief of staff, Abdel Salam Jadallah, and commander-in-chief, Nouri Abu Sahmain," he said.

Abu Sahmain is head of the General National Congress (GNC), the rival parliament based in Tripoli.

"We were about one kilometer (half a mile) from the main gate of al-Sider oil port, but we had to withdraw about two kilometers (1-1/4 miles) after Haftar's planes carried out airstrikes, which killed two of our members and wounded three," he said.

Two oil security guards were killed and four wounded, a medical source said.

Saqer al-Jarushi, Haftar's air force commander, said his forces attacked positions near Sirte, a central coastal city, which was confirmed by residents.

He added that a rival force coming from Misrata, a city west of Sirte and the ports, had advanced toward the terminals with a large number of cars.

"Air force jets and helicopters struck the fighters as they advanced on al-Sidra oil terminal," he said, adding that the air raids had caused "a large number of casualties."

Jarushi also said his forces bombed targets near Zuwarah west of Tripoli. The town is home to a gas and oil port.

A state of emergency was declared, he said.

In an interview published two weeks ago, Haftar said he set two weeks to take the eastern city of Benghazi and three months to recapture the capital, Tripoli.

It is likely Haftar’s deadline will be extended due to the formation of Mujahideen Shura Council.

The House of Representatives, elected in June and also now based in the east, said the attackers had been joined by the Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is fighting Haftar's troops in a separate battle in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Last month, Libya Dawn took al-Sharara oilfield, which produces more than 340,000 barrels per day, in the south after a force allied to Thani withdrew.

Officials were not immediately available to comment on the status of al-Sider after a worker told Reuters that staff had left the site.

An oil official said earlier the port and the Ras Lanuf terminal farther away from the fighting were working.

The eastern oil ports are controlled by Ibrahim Jathran, who could be seen directing troops during Saturday's clashes, according to a video posted on websites close to his group.

Jathran, who heads a pro-government unit in charge of guarding oil installations, threatened to call for eastern secession should world powers recognize the GNC.

Troops were still facing "some pockets of resistance," he added.

Conflict forced tens of thousands to leave Benghazi and also caused frequent fuel, power and water shortages, increased food prices and damaged infrastructure.

Fierce clashes persist in second city Benghazi and west of the capital Tripoli between forces loyal to Thani’s government and the Islamist militias.

The United Nations (UN) plans to hold talks at the beginning of next week to bring the two factions in Libya to the negotiating table.

Amnesty International said in a report late October that both pro-government and rebel militias vying for control of western Libya are committing war crimes including torturing detainees and targeting civilians.

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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