Libyan forces set conditions for lifting oil blockade

CAIRO (AP) — Forces loyal to a Libyan commander said they will only allow the reopening of oil fields and terminals once a mechanism has been set up to fairly distribute revenue across the country, which is split between rival, warring factions.

Powerful tribes in eastern Libya loyal to Khalifa Hifter closed export terminals and choked off major pipelines at the start of the year. The move was aimed at pressuring their rivals in the U.N.-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, in the country’s west.

In a statement late Saturday, Ahmed al-Mosmari, a spokesman for Hifter’s forces, called for oil revenues to flow into a bank account in a foreign country with a “clear mechanism” to distribute funds fairly among Libya’s regions. He did not name a country to host the account.

He also demanded international guarantees that oil revenues would not to be used to fund “terrorists and mercenaries.” He was apparently referring to the mercenaries, mostly Syrians, that Turkey brought in recent months to fight on the side of the Tripoli government, which is backed by an array of local militias as well as Turkey, Qatar and Italy.

Hifter’s forces are also backed by a patchwork of armed groups as well as foreign patrons, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia and France.

Al-Mosmari also called for an audit to Libya’s Central Bank in Tripoli to review the spending in the past years.

Oil, the lifeline of Libya’s economy, has long been at the center of the civil war, as rival authorities jostle for control of Africa’s largest reserves. The closures have deprived authorities of over $6.5 billion.

Hifter’s supporters say the Libyan Central Bank, which is based in the capital and collects oil revenue, only uses it for the benefit of the Tripoli government.

Last month, the tribes offered to end the closure as part of a political settlement. They mandated Hifter’s forces to negotiate the opening of the oil facilities.

The state-run National Oil Corporation said Friday it has resumed crude exports, shipping 730,000 barrels to Italy. Al-Mosmari said the shipment, which was contracted before the closures, was allowed in order to ease the strain on storage facilities.

In recent weeks, “regional countries” have been quietly negotiating with the Tripoli-based government over the distribution of oil revenues in talks supervised by the U.N. and the U.S., according to the state-run oil company.

But on Sunday, the National Oil Corp. said Hifter’s forces reversed their “cooperative posture” in the negotiations to reopen oil facilities. It accused the UAE of ordering Hifter to reimpose the blockade, without providing evidence. There was no immediate comment from the UAE.

There was no immediate reaction to the oil company’s allegation from the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula. Its Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. Embassy in Libya on Sunday also rebuked what it called “foreign-backed efforts against Libya’s economic and financial sectors,” saying they “impeded progress and heightened the risk of confrontation.” The embassy statement threatened sanctions against “those who undermine Libya’s economy and cling to military escalation.”

The statement did not name specific outside countries, but criticized both the Tripoli government’s “illegal obstruction” of an audit of Libya’s banking sector, as well as Saturday’s statement by Hifter’s forces and an incursion by Hifter-allied Russian mercenaries into a vast oil field last month.

Hifter’s forces launched an offensive in April last year to try to capture Tripoli. The offensive quickly stalled, however, and in recent weeks Hifter’s forces have fallen back as the Tripoli-allied militias, with Turkish support, gained the upper hand.

The Tripoli-allied forces are now threatening to retake the Mediterranean city of Sirte, which Hifter took in January. Capturing Sirte could allow Tripoli administration and its backers to gain control of Hifter-held oil fields and facilities in the south.