TRIPOLI/LONDON: Armed groups demanding autonomy for eastern Libya have invited foreign companies to buy oil from ports they seized in defiance of the central government.
In an announcement Tuesday, they also pledged to protect tankers loading crude, after the Libyan Defense Ministry said it would destroy vessels using ports in the east, which are under control of the protesters linked to a self-proclaimed regional government.
The development adds to an air of chaos as the weak Tripoli government struggles to rein in the armed groups that helped oust Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 but which kept their guns and are now demanding political power and a bigger share of the country’s oil wealth.
The conflict is hurting oil revenues, which fund the OPEC nation’s government and the import of wheat and other staple foods. The government has warned it will be unable to pay public salaries if the standoff continues.
The Libyan navy Monday said it fired warning shots at a tanker trying to load oil at the eastern port of Al-Sider, which was seized with two others by the autonomy group in August. The three harbors accounted previously for 600,000 barrels a day.
But the group, led by tribal leader and 2011 civil war hero Ibrahim Jathran, shrugged off Tripoli’s warning by inviting foreign companies to buy eastern oil.
“We welcome global oil companies ... The oil security guards will guarantee the safety of tankers,” said Abdel-Rabbo al-Barassi, prime minister of Jathran’s self-declared government in the Cyrenaica region.
Workers at the seized ports had returned to work, he said. A newly founded oil company called Libya Oil and Gas Corp. would be dealing with potential buyers. A new army and coast guard, made up of Jathran’s battle-hardened fighters, would secure the ports.
Barassi said his group had nothing to do with the tanker shot at by a Libyan navy vessel Sunday on its way to Al-Sider. Tripoli has said the tanker was intending to load oil at the seized port, but Barassi said this was a “lie.”
The confrontation has raised worries that Libya, also struggling with Islamist militias and armed tribesmen, might break apart as Cyrenaica and the southern Fezzan region demand political autonomy.
But Barassi said in a television broadcast that his group had no plans to secede.
He also invited Tripoli to send a delegation to help oversee oil sales. “We assure all Libyans that the sale of oil will be according to the law.”
The group is campaigning for a federal state sharing power and oil wealth between Cyrenaica, Tripolitania in the west and Fezzan, as was the case in the kingdom that preceded Gadhafi’s rule. Oil sales were then shared between the regions.
Libya’s Defense Ministry had earlier warned potential buyers against any docking at the seized ports. “If a ship docks in one of the closed ports and it does not leave the port again, then we will destroy it,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Said Abdel-Razig al-Shbahi.
Tribal leaders have sought to negotiate on behalf of the government with the group holding the ports. Those negotiations have gone nowhere despite pressure from tribal leaders, some of whom look down on Jathran as a warlord leading the country into chaos.
The risks of an escalation were clear over the weekend when the Libyan navy said it opened fire on the vessel before the tanker, Baku, turned back to Malta.
The owner of the tanker said Tuesday it had been in international waters and denied it was involved in trying to smuggle crude oil.
The owner, Palmali, said a Libyan naval vessel fired warning shots even after it provided written confirmation to the Libyan National Oil Company that it was no longer sailing to Al-Sider.
While negotiations with Jathran have failed, they worked elsewhere: Output at the southern government-controlled Al-Sharara oilfield rose further Tuesday to over two-thirds of full capacity and a pipeline shipping condensate – very light crude – to a western port reopened.