East Libyan forces have retaken the shuttered oil ports of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, hours after clashes resumed south of Ras Lanuf during a counter-attack by rival factions.
Staff were evacuated from terminals in Libya’s eastern oil crescent and exports were suspended last Thursday when armed opponents of eastern-based military commander Khalifa Haftar stormed and occupied the ports.
The fate of the ports, two of Libya’s largest, is crucial to the partial, fragile recovery of the country’s oil industry. Their closure led to production losses of up to 450,000 barrels per day (bpd) from a total national output of little over one million bpd.
Two oil storage tanks were set on fire, causing damage the National Oil Corporation (NOC) said will take years to repair. On Thursday, a third storage tank was set alight.
Haftar, who built up his Libyan National Army (LNA) during his three-year campaign to seize Benghazi, is vying for power in Libya since the country fragmented following a NATO-backed uprising in 2011.
He received increased international recognition since seizing the oil crescent ports in 2016 and allowing the National Oil Corp (NOC) to reopen them, despite rejecting a UN-backed government in Tripoli.
For the past week the LNA pounded the area with air strikes as it mobilised to retake the ports and it continued to target rivals with air strikes on Thursday as they retreated.
LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said troops retook Es Sider by mid-morning.
He said Ras Lanuf – including a residential town, an air strip, storage tanks and a refinery alongside the oil terminal – was also taken by the LNA, as rivals fled west and south into the desert, suffering heavy losses.
Military and local sources said clashes resumed south of Ras Lanuf when the LNA opponents counter-attacked, before Mismari asserted LNA was again in command of the area by late afternoon.
“The oil crescent is under full control,” he said, adding later in a press conference the ports would be handed to the NOC after a check for explosives.
Medical and military sources confirmed 15 dead and 25 wounded among LNA forces.
Libya’s national production was cut to between 600,000 and 700,000 bpd during the oil crescent clashes.
Production at AGOCO, an NOC subsidiary in the east, fell from around 250,000 to 180,000 bpd, an oil official said, due to power problems and disruption at Ras Lanuf.
As the LNA advanced on the ports on Thursday, NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla said he was expecting a quick restart.
“Libyan production is low but we are going to resume soon,” Sanalla told reporters in Vienna. “After a couple of days we will resume, we start our operations hopefully.”
The NOC blamed the attack on the terminals on militias led by Ibrahim Jathran, who blockaded oil crescent ports for several years before losing control of them in 2016.
The LNA said the Benghazi Defence Brigades – a coalition of anti-Haftar fighters that previously tried to advance on Benghazi and seized Ras Lanuf and Es Sider for 10 days in March 2017 – were also involved. Both sides have mercenaries recruited from southern Libya, Chad and Sudan.
Jathran, from the oil crescent region, attacked the ports last week to “overturn injustice” against local residents by the LNA. The LNA was accused of abuses and mass arrests after using tribal alliances to win the ports.
Haftar is the dominant figure in eastern Libya, aligned with a government and parliament based there since 2014. Backed by regional allies including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, he has controlled Benghazi, north-east of the oil crescent, since late last year.