East Libyan forces carry out air strikes and clash with rival factions close to major oil terminals, eastern military officials say.
BENGHAZI, Libya, March 3 (Reuters) - An armed faction entered a major Libyan oil terminal and a nearby airport on Friday, after attacking forces that have controlled the terminals since September, officials and residents said.
The terminals at Es Sider and Ras Lanuf are two of Libya's largest, with potential combined production capacity of about 600,000 barrels per day (bpd). The new uncertainty over their status could be a blow to Libya's hopes of further reviving its oil production.
It was unclear who controlled the ports late on Friday. There was no statement from the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) in Tripoli, which reopened the ports after the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) took them over seven months ago.
Since then the LNA's opponents have launched several unsuccessful attacks against the ports in Libya's eastern Oil Crescent, in a campaign linked to a broader conflict between factions based in eastern and western Libya.
Earlier on Friday the LNA said it had used air strikes and ground troops to repel the attack by the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB). But port engineers and a Libyan oil source said the BDB entered Es Sider port, and the BDB posted pictures of its fighters at an airport in neighbouring Ras Lanuf.
The oil source denied reports that workers at Es Sider had been evacuated, and port officials said operations had not been affected.
Later, the LNA said it had retaken control at Ras Lanuf airport. A medical source said at least three LNA troops had been killed and five wounded in the fighting.
Es Sider and Ras Lanuf are among four ports where the LNA took control in September. That allowed the NOC to reopen three long-blockaded ports, enabling a sharp boost in oil production.
The Benghazi Defence Brigades are composed partly of fighters who were ousted from Benghazi by the LNA, where LNA commander Khalifa Haftar has been waging a military campaign for nearly three years against Islamists and other opponents.
The LNA brands its opponents as Islamist extremists, and each side accuses the other of using mercenaries from Libya's sub-Saharan neighbours to the south. Some in the east also accuse elements of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli of backing the BDB and their allies.
The GNA's leadership strongly condemned Friday's escalation, saying in a statement that it "did not give any order to any forces to move towards that area". It suggested the attack could be an effort to scupper Libyan and international efforts to bring peace.
Libya has recently been producing about 700,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil, more than double its output early last year but still far less than the 1.6 million bpd the OPEC member was pumping before the 2011 uprising.
The Oil Crescent ports suffered major damage in previous rounds of fighting and are still operating well below capacity.
Tankers have been loading at Es Sider since December, with the Amalthea due to arrive on March 7 to load 630,000 barrels for Austria's OMV, according to shipping sources.
The NOC has been lobbying foreign firms to return to Libya and invest in the oil and gas sector as it tries to push production to 1.2 million bpd later this year.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli, and by Ahmad Ghaddar and Julia Payne in London; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy/Ruth Pitchford)
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