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article imageOp-Ed: Libyan oil ports still not retaken by eastern commander

By Ken Hanly     Mar 10, 2017 in World
It has been a week since the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) launched a surprise attack on troops loyal to eastern commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and seized Es Sider and Ras Lanuf two of the four main ports in the Libyan Oil Crescent.
Troops of Haftar's LNA were forced to withdraw from the ports and from several towns to the east as well. The LNA claims to be mobilizing for a counter attack but so far the two ports have not been under attack except from the air. The counter-attack is supposed to be going to be personally led by Haftar. The BDB are a group of jihadist miliitas opponents of Haftar whose aim they claim is not to control the ports but to continue to Benghazi and take it from Haftar. They claim that they are remaining only to ensure that the ports are under control of GNA-loyal guards.
On March 7th the BDB turned over control of the ports to Petroleum Facilities Guards(PFG) under the command of Idris Bukhamada who was appointed in February as the new commander of the PFG. Bukhamada had previously been commander of the PFG but had been ousted by Ibrahim Jadhran the commander of the PFG last September when Haftar-loyal forces took over all four ports with little resistance. Reports I have seen do not say how many are in the PFG. No doubt they probably would need the aid of the BDB to counter any Haftar counter-attack. You would think that the GNA would announce they were sending other forces as well to ensure a counter-attack is unsuccessful. One wonders if there is division within the GNA.
The head of the National Oil Company Mustafa Sanalla appeared quite happy when Haftar allowed the NOC to begin exporting and run the terminals. He was unhappy with the deal that the GNA had made with former head of the PFG Ibrahim Jadran. It may be that he would prefer to have Haftar back in control as under Haftar exports and production of oil were increasing. From the point of view of the GNA however, the BDB seizure has wrested power from Haftar and taken away some of his bargaining leverage.
BDB commander Mustafa al-Sharksi told reporters: "Our main goal is to retake our city, we reject injustice and military rule. When we rallied against Gaddafi, we wanted freedom, we wanted to build legitimate institutions, and leaders who would rule the country as those in the developed world do." The BDB agreed to let the NOC reopen the ports. The NOC is unlikely to do so until it is sure that the security situation is stable. No doubt right now they fear more clashes. For now the ambitious plan of the NOC to increase production dramatically has been stalled. At least so far neither side seems to have damaged the oil facilities. At least there is no report of further damage that I have seen.
A director of Cross Border Information, John Hamilton said: "What this demonstrates is that Haftar is not able to provide security for the terminals. How can any ship owners or insurers or oil companies be confident of sending vessels to lift crude, even if Haftar regains them?" The LNA had repelled two previous attempts to attack the ports. The guards at the port loyal to the GNA claimed they were well secured. However a week ago the LNA defenses were quickly breached and the LNA forces beat a retreat to Brega about 70 miles or 115 kilometers east of Ras Lanuf.
There are differing reports as to why the BDB attack was successful. Some such as Fawzi Boukatef a rebel leader in contact with the BDB said that support for Haftar among some in the Oil Crescent area had waned and also the some mercenaries working for the LNA had been bought off. Haftar apparently used mercenaries in his original assault. Boukatef said that some mercenaries were paid to leave the area and others to fight for the BDB.
The BDB is categorized as al-Qaeda linked militants by the LNA. While some of brigades no doubt do or did have links to Al Qaeda, Anas El Gomati head of the Libyan think-tank the Sadeq institute claimed that they have a wide support base and many different groups want displaced families to be able to return to Benghazi. Haftar has refused to help revive the UN-sponsored peace process. Some moderates in Misrata may have been willing to make a deal with Haftar but with the actions of the BDB hardliners on both sides appear to be getting stronger. Gomati said that it looked as if a deal with Haftar was highly unlikely.
The BDB found support from Major General Suleim Al-Obeidi, the former National Transitional Council military chief. He accused Haftar of forming an army of militias and hiring mercenaries to fight alongside his "self-styled army". The Libyan National Army (LNA) as it is called is the armed forces of the House of Representatives (HoR) Tobruk-based government and Haftar was made commander of those forces. However, Haftar's Operation Dignity to remove Islamist enemies of Haftar from Libya seems to be the LNA main operation and is supported by the government. The operation was started back in May of 2014 and in many respects started the ongoing conflict. Al-Obeidi said to the BBC: “When Haftar was promoted to Marshal, about 7000 mercenaries from the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement were fighting with him.” Al-Obeidi identified the BDB members as Benghazi revolutionary figures forcibly driven out of the city and said: “I am leftist, I can’t accuse them of Islamic extremism and Haftar can’t defeat them alone,” he remarked, referring to last year intervention of two Arab countries “Egypt and UAE” to help Dignity Operation repel the advance of BDB forces. This time, Al-Obeidi called the UN to impose a no-fly zone to facilitate the march of Benghazi Defense Brigades eastward. “We are still under the 7th Chapter, those fighters are under the Government of National Accord,” he noted. Of course there are no doubt some Islamic extremists as part of the BDB. I doubt that the UN is about to impose a no-fly zone over an area to protect the BDB from attack. It is interesting that Obeidi considers the BDB part of GNA forces or loyal to them. Their association is more with the Grand Mufti of Tripoli who is quite critical of the GNA. However, for tactical reasons no doubt they decided to turn over control of the two oil ports to GNA-loyal guards. It may mean less support for Haftar retaking the ports. Ghwell's Salvation government no doubt also supports the BDB attacks.
Former deputy prime minister Awad al-Barasi said that the BDB attack could only deepen divisions. The PC itself appears divided with the PC leadership against the attacks as Reuters reports: 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.
Yet according to al-Barasi defence minister Mahdi Al-Barghathi and some other elements of the PC praised the attacks. The leader of the PFG who will guard the two plants is close to Al-Barghathi. Barasi said: “They don’t realise how our people in Cyrenaica look at this attack. This might lead to more divisions and military clashes in other areas. War always has disastrous outcomes.” Barasi has been working to reconcile different parties to the conflict in Libya.
The latest report from LNA spokesperson Ahmed al-Mismari said LNA air strikes had targeted the BDB at Ras Lanuf and Nawfiliya forcing the brigades, he said, to mobilize ambulances to carry their dead and wounded. A military official said there was no change to positions on the ground. The front line is between the ports of Ras Lanuf and Brega. The LNA still controls Brega as well as a fourth port Zuwetina to the north-east. Haftar has apparently massed more troops for a counter-attack but so far it has not happened. Perhaps it will take place soon. One would expect that the GNA would be attempting to reinforce the PFG in Ras Lanuf and Es Sidre. Perhaps the GNA is divided as to what course they should take. Some may not be happy in that the existing order with an agreement with Haftar had been working. Even though they now have a group of guards loyal to the GNA and not to Haftar some may prefer the earlier arrangement.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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