CAIRO - Forces loyal to Libya’s top eastern military commander, General Khalifa Haftar, say they have pounded Islamist militia fighters who captured the key oil ports in the country. Haftar’s forces had controlled the Libya’s “oil triangle” district since September of last year.
Libyan media reports that air force fighter jets loyal to General Haftar attacked Islamist militia forces holding part of the oil port of Sidra and an airfield in the nearby oil port of Ras Lanouf. Haftar’s spokesman, Colonel Ahmed al-Mismary described the fighting to journalists.
He said that airstrikes are continuing and that his forces have begun a counterattack against the Islamist militia holding the area and recaptured part of the Ras Lanouf airfield, while reinforcing the area around Ras Lanouf with fighters from the east of the country. He said the goal was to crush the militia, so that it won’t return to the area.
Militia forces, calling themselves the “Benghazi Defense Brigades,” began the surprise attack on Sidra and Ras Lanouf on Thursday. A militia spokesman, Yasser Jebali, claimed his men were holding their ground.
He said there was heavy fighting in the area and that 50 or 60 armored personnel carriers loyal to General Haftar tried to encircle his forces, but failed.
The militia attack coincided with a visit to Moscow by Libya’s internationally-backed “national unity” government Prime Minister Fayez el-Seraj. Seraj, whose government still has not been approved by the country’s parliament in Tobruk, said his forces were not responsible for the attack.
Seraj also insisted that both General Haftar and parliament speaker Aguila Saleh were blocking mediation efforts by Egypt to hold a face-to-face meeting between himself and the general.
Qatar-based Libya al-Ahrar TV, which backs Islamist militias in Tripoli and Misrata, claimed that the “Benghazi Defense Brigades” were made up of fighters from Benghazi, which is now under Haftar’s control. It claimed that Haftar was using mercenaries from Chad, a charge which his spokesman denied.
The “Benghazi Defense Brigades” were reported to have captured the Libyan desert oil oasis of Jaffra in December. It was not clear who was supporting the group, but former U.N. special envoy for Libya Tarek Mitri said in an interview last year that certain Gulf countries were backing them covertly.
Mamdouh Salameh, a London-based oil analyst, told Libyan TV that “control of the country’s two largest oil ports [Ras Lanouf and Sidra] are always a main interest of the country’s militias and of the national unity government because they are the key to the country’s economy and ultimate control of Libya.”
Martin Kobler, the outgoing U.N. special envoy for Libya, in a tweet late Friday, urged “all parties to refrain from further escalation and to ensure the protection of civilians and of Libya’s natural resources and oil facilities.”