Libyan Commander's Seizure of Oil Ports Risks New Conflict
TUNIS/BENGHAZI, Libya, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Libyan forces loyal to eastern commander Khalifa Haftar said on Monday they had tightened their control over four major oil ports, casting a Western-backed project to unite Libya and revive oil exports into deep uncertainty.
Haftar's forces met little resistance as they seized the terminals at Ras Lanuf, Es Sider, Zueitina and Brega in an operation launched on Sunday, displacing a rival armed faction aligned with the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
The advance is the latest power struggle over the OPEC nation's energy assets, after the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi and the chaos that followed left the North African country splintered into competing rival armed factions.
Haftar opposes the Tripoli government and has resisted its attempts to integrate his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) into unified armed forces. His seizure of the ports risks a response from powerful western brigades allied with the government and a deepening of regional divisions.
But Tripoli may seek a deal with Haftar - similar to the agreement it struck with the armed faction he has displaced - to restart the oil exports it needs to stave off a financial crisis that could paralyse government operations.
Conflict and political disputes have reduced Libya's oil output and exports to a fraction of the level seen before an uprising toppled late dictator Gaddafi five years ago.
In a statement signalling a willingness to get oil flowing, Haftar's LNA said late on Sunday it would secure the ports to "return operational responsibility to the National Oil Corporation with a guarantee of non-interference by armed forces in operational activities and exports".
Just a year ago, Libya had two rival governments, one in Tripoli and one in the east, each backed by competing factions of armed brigades and laying claims to the country's oil resources.
A unity deal brokered by the United Nations, signed by rival factions in December despite opposition from hardliners, was meant to end the divide. As a result of the agreement, the GNA arrived in Tripoli in March, backed by Western powers to stabilise a country where lawlessness allowed Islamist militants and migrant smugglers to operate across swathes of territory.
Since then, however, some political and tribal leaders in the east have withheld their support, worried that the new government is a vehicle for opponents in the west. The LNA has strengthened its position, making military gains in and around Benghazi against Islamist-led opponents before taking control of the ports.
Many people in Tripoli and western Libya criticise Haftar as a new dictator in the making, but he has become a political figurehead for many in the east who feel abandoned by the capital.
In seizing the ports, the LNA displaced units of Libya's Petrol Facilities Guard (PFG) led by Ibrahim Jathran, which struck a deal with the GNA in July to end its three-year blockade of the Ras Lanuf, Es Sider and Zueitina terminals.
The LNA took Ras Lanuf and Es Sider, Libya's biggest export terminals, in a dawn operation on Sunday it dubbed "Swift Lightning". Clashes broke out in Zueitina, but the LNA said overnight that it had secured that port as well as confirming its control of a fourth port, Brega.
Residents in Zueitina and Brega told Reuters that LNA forces were in control on Monday.
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