In a game-changing move, Libya’s armed forces led by General Khalifa Haftar took control of five oil ports in the so-called oil crescent area on Sunday and Monday, setting off renewed debates on the country’s continuing military and political divisions.
The international community was quick to condemn the military takeover, insisting that the strategic facilities must be under the authority of the unity government in Tripoli.
In a joint statement released on Monday, the US and five European countries including France, Italy and the UK condemned the army’s takeover of Zueitina, Ras Lanuf, Sidra (Essider) and Brega from forces loosely aligned with the unity government, saying that this would destabilize the state.
The facilities, the largest and most important in Libya, were being controlled by Petroleum Facilities Guard units under Ibrahim Jadhran. The controversial commander, who back in 2013 and 2014 held the ports hostage demanding concessions from the authorities, opposes Haftar and the Interim Government in Bayda. The latter fired him earlier this year and appointed Muftah Hassan al-Magarief in his place.
But Jadhran was reappointed commander of the PFG’s central Libyan division by the GNA in June, when he briefly joined the battle against the Islamic State group in Sirte and his men seized several villages in central Libya from IS.
The GNA’s move sparked tensions and the army then threatened to move back into the oil crescent and attack any ships approaching the oil terminals.
Monday’s statement once again endorsed the GNA as “Libya’s sole executive authority” and called for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of army forces from the oil crescent.
“Libya’s oil belongs to the Libyan people. The Presidency Council (PC) is the sole steward of these resources. Oil infrastructure, production, and export must remain under the exclusive control of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) acting under the GNA’s authority. We call for all military forces that have moved into the oil crescent to withdraw immediately, without preconditions.”
But the president and members of the House of Representatives (HoR) – Libya’s parliament, which is based in the east and is yet to endorse the GNA – welcomed developments in the oil crescent and praised the army.
In response to the 6 nation statement on Tuesday, HoR president Agila Saleh said that the army had responded to a “popular and official call” to liberate the oil crescent.
Agila Saleh emphasised that the army did not intend to interfere with the oil industry.
“From the outset the army said it had nothing to do with the oil management and that this is the task of the NOC”, he said.
“The army will withdraw from the oil ports as soon as the NOC takes over.”
The army had also pledged to respect oil contracts, Agila Saleh said, assuring that there would be no oil sales outside the NOC framework.
In his address Agila Saleh recalled that the NOC had estimated the losses caused by Jadhran’s lengthy blockade at 100 billion US dollars.
In reference to the 6-nation statement Saleh said that what happened in the oil crescent was a “Libyan matter” that does not prejudice the rights of others, or Libya’s oil wealth.
“There is strong popular support for the army to control oil facilities and expel groups impeding oil exports”, Saleh said.
The Interim Government – the executive authority currently recognised by the HoR- also expressed its support for the military takeover.
Interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thini said the actions of the army “brought [the oil] under the legitimate authority.”
“We will work on the oil ports resuming work as soon as possible so as to guarantee all Libyans a decent life,” he added.
The HoR’s Energy Committee said Tuesday that the army had handed over the oil facilities to Muftah al-Magarief’s PFG and called on the NOC to resume exports.
Army spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said that the oil companies at the ports had already resumed their work.
Monday evening Mohamed Dawud al-Gabsi, commander of Ajdabiya Battalion 302 that is loyal to Haftar, had declared that all the ports in the oil crescent were now under the control of Libya’s armed forces.
The last port to fall he said was Brega, and Jadhran’s men had been obliged to withdraw some 30 kilometres away from the sites.
On Sunday, they took the Ras Lanuf and Sides ports before attacking Zueitina to the east and then Brega on Monday.
“What the Army achieved today had been planned for months. Today we witnessed zero hour”, Apr am Buhliga – Spokesman for the army’s Ajdabiya Operations Room- told Libya Channel on Monday.
“The armed forces entered Ras Lanuf and Sidra and the PFG withdrew without shedding any drop of blood or clashes,” he added.
He said units of Ajdabiya Operations Room had seized key road intersections and captured a number of vehicles, as well as surrounding Al-Sham military Base, one of Jadhran’s main positions.
“Our forces also advanced to October 7 district [in Ajdabiya] where many houses contain weapons. Clashes are ongoing”, Buhliga said.
“Many PFG members responded to Saleh al-Atewish’s call and surrendered to the Army”, Buhliga added, referring to a key figure of the Magharba tribe, which is strongly represented in the area and which Jadhran – and many of his followers – belong to.
Buhliga claimed there were no casualties and that the oil ports had not been damaged in the takeover, adding that smoke coming from the port of Sidra was caused by the explosion of a small gasoline reservoir that supplies generators, and not from crude reservoirs.
Muftah Hassan al-Magarief, reappointed head of the oil fields by the Interim Government, told Libya Channel that “hundreds of people” from Jadhran’s forces defected to the army.
Tribal leader Saleh al-Atewish added in a statement to Libya Channel that forces once loyal to Jadhran could surrender to the army and enrol with the “legitimate oil facilities guards”.
Jadhran’s house in Ajdabiya was reportedly attacked on Sunday by unknown assailants, his current whereabouts are unknown.
UN Libya envoy Martin Kobler expressed his “grave concern” at fighting around the oil ports, and called on forces who seized the terminals to refrain from further military escalation.
“Attacks on the oil terminals further threaten the stability and lead to a greater division of the country,” Kobler said. “They further restrict the oil exports and add to people’s suffering.”
“I call for the respect of UN Security Council Resolution 2259 which recognises the Government of National Accord consisting of the Presidency Council (PC) and the cabinet as the sole executive authority in Libya.”
The GNA’s Presidency Council, which is headed by PM Faiez Sarraj, said it was “contrary to the process of reconciliation” and frustrated the hopes of the Libyans to achieve stability and relieve their suffering.
The escalation, the PC statement continued, would only prolong the conflict and result in heavy casualties. It vowed to eliminate any foreign forces that would exploit the current situation to push into strategic areas – a reference to rumours that Haftar had employed and was relying on Sudanese mercenaries.
The PC added that it was the sole legitimate government in the country and that all oil facilities and state institutions came under its jurisdiction.
They concluded the statement by calling on all “patriotic forces in the east, west and south” to work to combat this issue and provide assistance: a veiled call to arms.
Jadhran has been a controversial figure for many years after he led an oil blockade in 2013 and 2014 in the name of federalism, barring the then government from using some of its most lucrative oil fields and causing millions in damages. Despite the criticisms, Jadhran retained the loyalty of his oil guard unit and pledged allegiance to the GNA in June.
In late July, the GNA announced oil exports would resume at Ras Lanuf and Sidra – which together have a capacity of 700,000 bpd – after a months-long closure following jihadist attacks.
Ports had shut after attacks in January by the Islamic State group.