By Ayman al-Warfalli
BENGHAZI, Libya, Sept 18 – Eastern Libyan forces said they had reestablished control over two oil ports where an ousted faction launched a counter-attack on Sunday, briefly seizing one of the terminals.
The two ports, Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, were among four seized by forces loyal to eastern commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) on Sept. 11-12 from a Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) faction led by Ibrahim Jathran.
The fighting came as the state-run National Oil Corporation (NOC) prepared to restart oil exports from the ports, blockaded for several years, and it was not clear whether shipments would be affected.
LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said pro-Haftar forces had repelled an attack at Ras Lanuf with the help of air strikes, and were pursuing Jathran forces fleeing from Es Sider, where they had taken control earlier in the day. A Libyan oil industry source confirmed that the LNA controlled both the ports.
The clashes raise fears of a new conflict over Libya’s oil resources. Jathran’s PFG had aligned itself with a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, while Haftar is a divisive figure whose opponents accuse of trying establish military rule over the North African country.
Fighting and political disputes have reduced oil output to a fraction of the 1.6 million barrels per day the OPEC member produced before a 2011 uprising.
An LNA official said there was a fire at a tank in Es Sider, already damaged in previous fighting, and pictures from Ras Lanuf showed black smoke billowing from residential areas.
A tanker that arrived on Thursday at Ras Lanuf to load crude – the first to dock there for some two years – remained at the port, a port official said.
LNA spokesman Mismari and a pro-Haftar guard spokesman said pro-Jathran fighters had been aided by the Benghazi Defense Brigades, a force that launched an unsuccessful offensive against the LNA in eastern Libya earlier this year.
They also said LNA fighters had seen Jathran on Sunday during the clashes, and said he had been injured in the shoulder. Jathran’s spokesman could not immediately be reached to verify the reports.
One LNA fighter was killed and three wounded in Sunday’s clashes, Mismari said. There were no casualty figures for Jathran’s forces.
The LNA’s seizure of the ports a week ago took place as the Muslim holiday of Eid was starting and faced little resistance, with a senior tribal leader calling on Jathran’s men to switch allegiances.
After moving into Es Sider, Ras Lanuf, Zueitina and Brega, the LNA said it was handing over control of the terminals to the National Oil Corporation (NOC) so that exports could resume.
Jathran had long blockaded the ports of Es Sider, Ras Lanuf and Zueitina, and a recent deal between him and the U.N.-backed government showed little sign of progressing.
On Thursday, the NOC announced it was lifting “force majeure” contractual clauses at the blockaded ports and that exports would restart immediately at Zueitina and Ras Lanuf.
It said they would start as soon as possible at Es Sider, and would continue at Brega, which had remained open.
After the LNA took the ports, NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla had said Libya could raise output to 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) within a month and to 950,000 by the end of the year from about 290,000 currently.
But he said that would depend on the NOC receiving new funds, and on the ports and blockaded pipelines being opened and remaining open.