Libyan Berber Militia Shuts Undersea Gas Exports to Italy

Militants block natural gas exports to pressure the central government into recognizing their heritage.

Berbers in the northwest of Libya on Monday shut the country’s undersea gas export pipeline to Italy, depriving the weak central government of a major source of revenue.

Two weeks ago, a militia led by former army officer Adel al-Falu seized the Mellitah port west of the capital Tripoli which is normally operated by the state’s oil company and Italy’s Eni. The Greenstream pipeline connects it with Sicily.

“We can stop gas exports to Europe,” Falu told the Reuters news agency, “to pressure Italy and the European Union to push (Libya’s) General National Congress to recognize the Amazigh language.”

The Berbers, who call themselves Amazigh or “Free Ones”, inhabited North Africa for thousands of years before Arabs brought Islam to the region in the seventh century. They make up some 10 percent of Libya’s population but were suppressed throughout the forty years Muammar Gaddafi ruled the country. It is estimated that only 300,000 still speak the native language.

The legislature in Tripoli — hamstrung by infighting between the somewhat liberal National Forces Alliance, led by wartime prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, and the Islamists — is debating a new constitution that could recognize the Berbers’ heritage.

The Berbers were quick to join the Libyan uprising in early 2011 which nearby Arab and Western powers supported with airstrikes. But like many militias that sprung up to fight Gaddafi’s army and mercenaries, the Berbers have refused to lay down their arms, insisting the revolution isn’t over.

The protest at Mellitah parallels the seizure of export facilities in Ra’s Lanuf and Sidra in the east by other armed groups demanding more regional autonomy. The eastern part of Libya, historically known as Cyrenaica, used to account for some 60 percent of the country’s oil production. Industrial actions and a lack of security have knocked down crude production to about 10 percent of capacity, however.

In the southwest, too, tribal leaders have demanded more autonomy from Tripoli.

The suspension of gas imports from Africa adds to Italy’s energy headaches after Ukraine halted gas sales from Russia. Italy depends heavily on Russian gas.