Air strikes hit the Libyan capital on Saturday as eastern forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar pursued a three-week campaign to take Tripoli and confirmed for the first time a warship was sent to an oil port.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) force of Haftar, allied to a parallel government, repeatedly flew air strikes since the offensive started to take the capital held by the internationally recognised government.
The offensive exacerbated chaos in Libya and threatens to disrupt oil supplies, boost migration across the Mediterranean to Europe and scupper UN plans for an election to end rivalries between administrations in the east and west.
Tripoli forces pushed back the LNA in some southern suburbs in recent days. A suspected drone could be heard for almost an hour plus followed by at least eight loud explosions, witnesses said. Anti-aircraft fire could be heard.
Reuters was unable to establish with certainty whether an aircraft or drone was behind the strikes with residents reporting a humming sound similar to unmanned aircraft.
Supporters of the Tripoli government blamed a UAE drone for previous air strikes. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt helped Haftar, a former Gaddafi general, in the past with air strikes when he was taking control of the east.
Both countries have provided the LNA with military equipment such as helicopters, even building an air base, previous UN reports said, helping Haftar become a major player in Libya.
The air strikes came before the LNA sent a warship to the eastern Ras Lanuf oil port, after days of unconfirmed rumours of a foreign navy ship being sighted.
LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari told reporters his forces sent the Alkarama patrol vessel to Ras Lanuf in Libya’s key Oil Crescent region as part of a “training mission” to visit the operations room and to secure oil facilities.
The LNA last year received the patrol vessel, previously owned by a firm with a postal address in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to UN report monitoring violations of an arms embargo on Libya.
A port engineer said the navy ship’s berthing had not affected oil exports. It was not immediately clear if the ship was still in harbour.
State oil firm NOC said several Libyan warships used the oil port, while military personnel also entered nearby Es Sider terminal.
It did not say who was responsible for this the terminals, Libya’s biggest oil export ports, are controlled by the LNA.
The LNA controls eastern oil ports and the county’s oilfields but technically left state firm NOC to run them as foreign buyers of oil want to deal with NOC, which they have known for decades.
NOC is based in Tripoli and sought to stay out of the conflict between the two governments, handling the oil and gas exports, Libya’s lifeline.
The export proceeds go to the Tripoli central bank which mainly works with the Tripoli government but also pays some public servants in LNA-controlled eastern Libya.
Haftar is allied to a parallel administration which has set up its own state oil firm and repeatedly sought to take over oil exports from NOC Tripoli.
NOC condemned the use of its facilities for military purposes without mentioning the LNA.
“Incidents recorded by NOC include: the seizure of the Es Sider airstrip for military use, military personnel entering the port of Es Sider as well as attempts to requisition NOC tug boats, berthing of warships in Ras Lanuf terminal and its use by Libyan military vessels.
“NOC strongly condemns the militarisation of Libyan national energy infrastructure,” it added.
The NOC said revenues rose to more than $1.5 billion in March, up 20% from the previous month, but fighting posed a threat to production.
“The latest outbreak of hostilities poses a threat to our operations, production and the national economy,” said NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla.
Separately, the Tripoli-based interior ministry said it seized an Iranian ship “carrying a mysterious shipment” in Misrata.