Militias have captured a string of key Libyan oil ports in the fight against eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar, sharply escalating the country’s civil war and throwing international peacemaking efforts into doubt, The Guardian reported.
The Islamist Benghazi militia struck at al-Sidra, Libya’s biggest oil port, and Ras Lanuf, its biggest refinery, overnight on Friday, forcing Haftar’s Libyan National Army to retreat.
Army spokesman Col Ahmad al-Mismari said the militias had overrun the main airfield at Ras Lanuf, with the army pulling back to avoid damage to oil facilities.
He said the Benghazi Defence Brigades, militias originally from Benghazi who were driven out of the city by Haftar’s forces last year, attacked the ports from four directions on Friday.
Airstrikes failed to halt the drive, in which militia units entered the ports in fighting that has left at least nine dead. Renewed strikes were launched against the militias on Saturday morning, while army reinforcements massed for a counter-attack in what has become a see-saw struggle to control Libya’s vast oil wealth.
“The attackers were armed with modern tanks and a radar to neutralise our air force,” Mismari said. “But the battle is ongoing. The situation in the ‘oil crescent’ remains under control.”
Haftar’s forces seized al-Sidra and Ras Lanuf, together with nearby ports Brega and Zueitina in an offensive last September that dealt a major blow to the UN-backed government of national accord, whose militias had controlled them.
Haftar supports Libya’s parliament, based in the eastern town of Tobruk, which opposes the GNA in Tripoli, and both sides have made gaining control of the ports their priority.
The Tripoli government denied involvement in the attack, condemning it as a “military escalation” and called for all sides to cease fighting.
Britain’s ambassador, Peter Millet, tweeted his concern that the battle may shatter Libya’s oil industry. “I follow with great concern fighting in the ‘oil crescent’ which threatens Libya’s oil and the lives of civilians,” he said.
The oil ports have been the focus of months of fighting, with the Benghazi Defence Brigades launching offensives against them in December and February that were broken up by airstrikes.
Exports from the ports are the main source of hard currency for a country whose economy is in tatters after enduring chaos and violence ever since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The fighting also risks opening a divide among outside powers, with Haftar backed by neighbouring Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, while the GNA has support from the United States, Britain and most European Union powers.
In recent weeks Russia has been trying to broker talks between the two governments to form a power-sharing administration with a prominent role for Haftar.
The move was backed last month by the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who said: “That’s the crucial question: how to make sure that Haftar is in some way integrated into the government of Libya.”
The United Nations has also been mediating a plan to restructure the GNA to incorporated Haftar, while the GNA itself is struggling in Tripoli, with its forces fighting street battles against militias from a third would-be administration, the “salvation government”, for control of the capital.
With reinforcements pouring into the oil ports fighting on Saturday, hopes of a peace deal may be vanishing. “No room for political negotiations in the near future,” tweeted Libyan analyst Mohamed Eljarh. “Today’s developments make political solutions even more difficult to achieve.”