Eastern forces loyal to commander Khalifa Haftar launched a military operation in southern Libya to secure oil and gas facilities and fight extremists, a spokesman said in a move that may alarm Tripoli authorities in Tripoli authorities.
Haftar, whose powerbase is Benghazi, leads the Libyan National Army (LNA), which controls the east of the North African nation and major oil ports in the region.
“We announce the start of an operation to liberate the south,” LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari told reporters in Benghazi.
The operation’s goals included protecting local and foreign oil firms, fighting Islamic State and other extremists and tackling illegal migration.
He gave few other details, but any advance on oilfields in the south by Haftar forces could be opposed by Libya’s internationally recognised administration in Tripoli, in the west of the OPEC nation.
Other military sources told Reuters several LNA units moved in recent days from Benghazi to Sabha, the biggest city in the south of Libya in the south-same western region as El Sharara, Libya’s biggest oilfield.
El Sharara, more than 200 km from Sabha, has been closed since December due to a protest by tribesmen and state guards demanding salary payments and development in the area.
It was not immediately clear whether the LNA forces were headed to El Sharara. El Feel oilfield, a smaller local production facility is not affected by protests.
Haftar has become a major player in Libya since his forces seized Benghazi in 2017, after a three-year battle mainly with Islamist fighters.
Mustafa Sanalla, chairman of the state-owned National Oil Company, said he would not reopen the 315,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) El Sharara field without a new security arrangement.
He demanded a change of leadership for state oil guards, parts of which NOC previously accused of backing the field occupation, plus training for the force to make it more professional and the creation of “Green Zones” to prevent unauthorised access.
Tripoli-based NOC has struggled to keep national oil production steady because armed groups or tribesmen often force closure of El Sharara and other oilfields.
Libyan output hovers around a million bpd, below the 1.6 million bpd produced before the 2011 uprising that plunged the nation into chaos.
Security in southern Libya is poor given its remoteness from the main population centres and the overall breakdown of law and order since 2011. The region has frequent clashes between tribes and armed groups.