Air strikes hit Misrata as fire engulfs oil terminal

Air strikes hit Misrata as fire engulfs oil terminal
First air strikes hit militia-held Misrata as fighting erupts around Libya's largest oil terminal, Sidra, setting storage tanks ablaze and forcing it to shut down, with France warning that Libya is becoming a ‘hub’ for terrorists.
4 min read
28 December, 2014
Rival militas are battleing for control of Libya's oil resource [AFP]

Forces loyal to Libya's internationally recognised government carried out their first air strikes Sunday against militia-held third city Misrata, a spokesman said.

Colonel Ahmed Mesmari said the strikes were in response to a renewed attempt by the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) militia on Sunday morning to seize the key Al-Sidra oil export terminal. Residents said the air strikes hit the school of aviation close to Misrata airport, the port and a steel plant.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Fajr Libya has been attempting to take Al-Sidra and the nearby Ras Lanuf terminal since Thursday when it killed at least 22 soldiers in a surprise attack by speedboat.

Seven of the 19 oil tanks at Al-Sidra were ablaze on Sunday as a result of the fighting, an oil official said.

Since clashes first erupted around the export terminals on December 13, Libya's oil production has dropped to less than 350,000 barrels per day compared with 800,000 previously, according to industry experts. 

More than three years after dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in a NATO-backed revolt, Libya is awash with weapons and powerful militias, and has rival parliaments as well as governments. 

As well as Misrata, the capital Tripoli and second city Benghazi are largely in the hands of militia and the internationally recognised government has taken refuge in the remote east.

'Push to control oil'

Libya's foreign minister in the internationally recognised government had earlier said that extremist groups are escalating their attacks in his country, including a renewed push to control oil resources.  

Mohamed Dayri, speaking Sunday in Cairo, called for concerted international efforts to stem the flow of money and weapons to them called the clashes a serious escalation. He said troops loyal to his government hope to fend off the attack, in which terrorist groups are involved. 

Dayri called the clashes a serious escalation. He said troops loyal to his government hope to fend off the attack, in which militant groups are involved. 

The attack on the terminal began Thursday when a rocket targeting the terminal wad fired by militiamen from Fajr Libya, a coalition of Islamist fighters. One oil tank was hit, said the region's security spokesman Ali al-Hassi, before the fire spread on Friday to two other full tanks at Al-Sidra terminal.  

On Saturday the flames engulfed another two storage tanks at Al-Sidra, which is in the eastern region known as the "oil crescent" and home to other key terminals, he said.  

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said in a statement on Saturday that it "strongly condemns" attacks on Libya's oil installations.  

"The mission warns of the environmental and economic consequences as a result of this violence and destruction in the oil crescent area, and urges the forces on the ground to cooperate in order to allow the fire crews to extinguish the blaze," it said.  

Hassi said the national fire department refused to extinguish the fires, prompting volunteer firefighters to come forward to fight the flames with the help of oil installation guards.  

"They are doing their best to extinguish the fire and are working under difficult conditions," Hassi said.  

A technician for Waha, the company responsible for running Al-Sidra, said there are 19 storage tanks at the terminal with a total capacity of 6.2 million barrels of oil.  

The source, who declined to be named, estimated the amount of crude lost to the fire so far at more than 1.6 million barrels.  

'A hub for terrorists'

Upping the rhetoric, France warned Sunday that southern Libya is fast becoming a ‘hub’ for terrorists. 

The country’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the Le Journal Du Dimanche that local militiamen have joined forces with their erstwhile enemies linked to al-Qaeda affiliated armed groups. He warned that the presence of such groups so close to the Mediterranean represented a threat to the national security of France. He added that in 2015 the United Nations and the African Union must confront this in 2015.

The United Nations envoy to Libya. Chadian Ambassador Mohamad Cherif had earlier said that talks among Libya's rival groups are set to take place on 5 January, after agreement was reached on a road map toward calming a conflict that has split the country.

Libya now has two governments, one that is internationally recognized and another backed by Islamist militias. The U.N. has warned that the violent chaos threatens the region's stability.  

Cherif says the council urges the parties to accept an immediate cease-fire, and it is concerned about the flow of arms into Libya despite an arms embargo. 

The U.N. says the fighting has killed hundreds of civilians and could lead to prosecution for war crimes.