Libya's east-based commander promises end of oil blockade

Libya’s commander who rules the eastern half of the country says that oil production will restart soon, ending a months-long blockade of the nation’s vital oil fields

Libya's commander who rules the eastern half of the country and who was behind a year-long military attempt to capture the capital, Tripoli, said Friday that oil production would restart soon, ending a months-long blockade of the nation's vital oil fields.

The Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation, however, remained skeptical, and previous attempts to end the oil blockade have repeatedly broken down.

The commander, Khalifa Hifter, promised in a televised address, that oil would start pumping again, for the first time since January. He also said exports would resume “with conditions that ensure a fair distribution of revenue so that they not be used to support terrorist militias” — his jargon for forces loyal to the western-based administration in Tripoli.

He did not elaborate on a political deal that would allow the long-contested fields to go back online. Hifter's forces, backed by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, control the country's major oil fields and terminals.

Libya is divided between two rival administrations, based in the country’s east and west, which the U.N. has been trying to steer toward peace talks aimed at ending their years-long conflict. Earlier this month, the two sides agreed on a preliminary deal that would include elections within 18 months and a demilitarization of the contested city of Sirte, controlled by Hifter and the gateway to Libya’s major oil fields and export terminals.

Earlier Friday, the head of the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation, issued a statement indicating the resumption of oil production was less certain.

Mustafa Sanallah said the corporation would not lift force majeure, a legal maneuver that lets a company get out of its contracts because of extraordinary events, until Russian mercenaries leave the oil fields and export terminals. Sanallah rejected what he called “secret” and “disorganized negotiations” aiming to undercut an internationally-brokered political process to reopen the fields.

Libya’s highly prized, light crude has long been a factor in its civil war, as rival militias and foreign powers jostle for control of Africa’s largest oil reserves. Since Libya descended into chaos following the 2011 uprising that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the North African country has been split west to east. The U.N.-supported administration in the capital, Tripoli, holds sway over the west, while Hifter and his allies rule the east and south.

“We pledge to block these useless negotiations that aim for nothing except to gain limited political profits,” said Sanallah.

He was referring to back-door talks between Ahmed Matiq, the deputy prime minister of the Tripoli-based administration, and Hifter’s representatives that sought to bring an end to the oil paralysis and create a new mechanism to distribute the country’s petrodollars more equitably.

Hifter's side agreed to enter the talks only after its campaign to take the Libyan capital by force failed in June and the Tripoli-based militias, backed by Turkey, turned the tide of war.

Powerful eastern tribes loyal to Hifter first seized control of the oil fields in January, cutting Libya’s production to a trickle and starving the country of badly needed cash, to protest what they describe as the unfair distribution of oil wealth and the diversion of revenue to Turkish-backed mercenaries fighting on behalf of the Tripoli-based government, which oversees Libya's Central Bank.

The blockade has deprived the National Oil Corporation of nearly $10 billion in revenue and led to nationwide fuel shortages. Power outages across the divided country have piled on misery for millions of Libyans struggling to cope with a dire coronavirus outbreak and devastated infrastructure, triggering street demonstrations that have intensified pressure on the parties to reach a settlement over the country's oil.

Matiq said the decision to immediately reopen Libya’s fields and ports came as part of an economic settlement over oil revenue, involving a joint committee to form a budget, transfer funds and resolve financial disputes between the rival factions. He did not address the scores of Russian mercenaries from Wagner, a Kremlin-linked private security company, stationed across oil fields that the National Oil Corporation says remain a barrier to the resumption of exports.

Hifter’s announcement comes just days after his key rival, Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj of the Tripoli-based government, announced he would hand over power to a new administration in October, raising fears about a possible succession struggle within the government as the U.N. presses ahead with political talks, set to resume soon in Geneva.

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