Escalating Conflict Hits Libya’s Oil Exports

Fighting between factions in the east and west of Libya threatens the country’s economic lifeline.

A Libyan rebel sits in front an oil refinery after the capture of Ra's Lanuf, March 5, 2011
A Libyan rebel sits in front an oil refinery after the capture of Ra’s Lanuf, March 5, 2011 (AP/Hussein Malla)

A huge fire at Libya’s biggest oil port of Sidra had destroyed more than $200 million worth of crude oil by Wednesday, a day after a bomb exploded outside the hotel in Tobruk where one of the country’s two rival parliaments convenes.

No fatalities were reported in either incident although an assembly spokesman said three deputies and eight others were wounded in Tuesday’s blast.

Both sides in the conflict that had been shimmering for months but erupted violently in August when rebels took over the capital, Tripoli, blamed the other for hitting a tank farm at Sidra with rockets.

The Sidra terminal and the facilities in nearby Ra’s Lanuf shut three weeks ago when forces loyal to the rival government in Tripoli tried to seize them from the army that is allied to the recognized prime minister, Abdullah al-Thani.

The Tobruk forces, who are commanded by a former Gaddafi officer, General Khalifa Haftar, said they staged airstrikes on targets in Misrata, a city east of Tripoli, on Sunday.

The Libya Dawn coalition that controls the capital hails from Misrata. The group claims to advocate no particular ideology but includes various Islamist organizations.

The Tobruk parliament, which was elected in June, is supported by militias from Zintan and notably more secular than the previous legislature — which was revived by Libya Dawn in August and sanctioned by a supreme court ruling.

Since NATO airstrikes helped rebels topple Libya’s veteran dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, in late 2011, no government has been able to control the militia groups that refused to disband after Gaddafi was defeated.

Haftar, once a colonel in Gaddafi’s army, put together the remnants of the former military to suppress an Islamist uprising in Benghazi earlier this year with support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. His forces largely control the east.

Eastern Libya, which was known as Cyrenaica before the Italians united the country in the 1930s, was home to the Libyan monarchy until Gaddafi, a westerner, took power in 1969. Gaddafi favored economic development around the new capital, Tripoli, and largely neglected the east, even though it accounts for some 60 percent of Libya’s oil production and houses key petroleum export facilities at Ra’s Lanuf and Zuwetina.

Following Gaddafi’s demise, tribal leaders and former army officers in the east declared autonomy from Tripoli. Berbers in the northwest have also distanced themselves from central authority.

Libya’s economy is disproportionately dependent on hydrocarbon exports. With only the ports of Brega and Hariga and two offshore fields still working, output dropped to around 380,000 barrels per day this weekend, far below the roughly 800,000 barrels the country put out last month — which was only half the oil it pumped in the summer of 2013.