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Libya: Haftar plans to lift 8-month oil blockade

September 18, 2020

Khalifa Haftar troops stopped production, looking for a share of the profits. They seem to have got their way, but political uncertainty is growing in GNA-controlled Tripoli and Haftar-stronghold Benghazi alike.

A member of the Libyan National Army stands on a military vehicle at one of their sites in west of Sirte, Libya
Image: Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters

Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar announced on Friday he would lift the blockade on oil production after reaching an agreement with the rival Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) on "fair distribution" of energy revenue.

"We are ready to open oil fields, to secure the future of Libya, for one month," Haftar said in a statement distributed by his spokesman after a short, televised broadcast.

Powerful eastern groups loyal to Haftar and supported by the Petroleum Facilities Guard first seized control of key oil fields and export terminals on January 17, demanding a share of the revenues.

The blockade exacerbated electricity and fuel shortages and damaged the economy further in a country that has effectively been mired in civil war since the western intervention to support protesters seeking to oust Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, dividing the nation into two administrations.

Forces loyal to Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA) control the oil-rich east; meanwhile, the GNA, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, largely controls the west, including the capital Tripoli.

The oil announcement from Haftar comes as Sarraj announced on Wednesday he is stepping down as part of a fresh bid to broker a peace deal.

Restarting oil production could relieve financial pressures on both sides and remove a major obstacle towards a political settlement. The blockade, in the country with Africa's largest oil reserves, is estimated to have cost the National Oil Corporation (NOC) nearly $10 billion (€8.4 billion) in revenue.

Major unrest had recently broken out in the Haftar-controlled city of Benghazi, in part over oil shortages.

Why is Haftar lifting the blockade?

Dressed in his military uniform, Haftar said it had already "been decided" to resume production.

Exports would resume "with conditions that ensure a fair distribution of revenue so that they not be used to support terrorist militias," — Haftar's term for forces loyal to the western-based administration in Tripoli.

His spokesman, Ahmed al-Mosmari, said the breakthrough stems from a "Libyan-Libyan dialogue" led by Ahmed Matiq, the GNA's deputy prime minister.

The decision to reopen came as part of an economic settlement over revenue, involving a joint committee to form a budget, transfer funds and resolve financial disputes between the rival factions, said Matiq.

NOC, which operates Libya's energy sector, said overnight it would not lift force majeure — a legal maneuver that lets a company get out of its contracts because of extraordinary events — on exports until the LNA withdrew fighters from its facilities.

Mustafa Sanallah, the head of the NOC, on Friday issued a statement rejecting what he called "secret" and "disorganized negotiations" aiming to undercut an internationally-brokered political process to reopen the fields.

There was no formal statement from the Tripoli-based GNA government.

Read more: Germany exports millions in arms to Libya war belligerents, despite embargo

What else is happening in Libya?

Sarraj sits at a desk between flags
Libya's internationally recognized Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj announced plans to step down this weekImage: Media Office of the Prime Minister/Handout/Reuters

On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted to GNA leader Sarraj Wednesday's announcement that he plans to step down by the end of October.

Sarraj said he was leaving his post to aid peace talks. The two sides met in Morocco aftera surprise ceasefire announced by Saaraj last month.

Turkish fighters helped GNA forces repel on an offensive by Haftar's troops, with Russian backing, seeking to take the Libyan capital in June.

"A development like this, hearing such news, has been upsetting for us," Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul, adding that Turkish delegations may hold talks with Sarraj's government in the coming week. "With these meetings, God willing we will turn this issue towards the direction it needs to go."

Meanwhile, Haftar's grip in the east has also seemed shaky of late, with hundreds of Libyans protesting last week in Benghazi and other cities over corruption, power cuts as well as shortages in petrol and cash.

Protesting peacefully at first, protesters on Sunday set fire to the headquarters of the parallel eastern government in Benghazi and attacked the police station in the city of Al-Marj in the northeast of the country. Police officers fired live ammunition to disperse them in Al-Marj, leaving at least one dead and several wounded, according to witnesses and the UN mission in Libya.

kmm/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP)