More air strikes near eastern Libyan oil port and border to Tunisia

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 15, 2014 12:44 PM

By Ulf Laessing and Ayman al-Warfalli

RAS JDIR/BENGHAZI (Reuters) - Libya's recognized government conducted air strikes against rival government forces trying to seize major oil ports in the east and targets in the west on Monday, but the rival government held control of the main crossing to Tunisia, witnesses said.

The oil producer has had two governments and parliaments since a group called Libya Dawn seized the capital Tripoli in August after a month-long battle with rivals and set up its own prime minister. The recognized premier Abdullah al-Thinni was forced to withdraw to the east.

Both sides are allied to brigades which helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and now vie for political power and a share of the vast oil reserves in a conflict Western powers fear might tear apart the North African country.

On Saturday, a force allied to the Tripoli-based rival government, who opponents say has links to Islamists, launched an offensive to take eastern oil facilities.

A force loyal to Thinni flew air strikes against the troops located some 40 km away from Es Sider oil port, its air force commander Saqer al-Joroushi said. The Tripoli-based government said its troops were controlling all roads leading to the country's biggest oil port.

Some 800 km (500 miles) to the west, an air strike targeted Zuwara, a western town near the border to Tunisia, witnesses said. But the rival government kept control of the main crossing in Ras Jdir.

A Reuters multimedia team visiting Ras Jdir saw troops allied to Libya Dawn guarding the station which had briefly closed on Sunday after an air strike some 6km from it.

Thinni's government had claimed it was controlling the crossing, an important lifeline for a country which has few international air connections.

"Now the border is back to normal," said a border guard. Tunisian trucks were bringing in food and dairy products, while Libyan motorists crossed into in the other direction.

The escalation comes as the United Nations is planning to resume peace talks in the coming days after a first round in September had made no progress.

On Sunday, state run National Oil Corp shut down production at the Es Sider and nearby Ras Lanuf ports, whose fields had produced some 350,000 barrels a day, or more than half of the country's crude output.

(Writing by Ulf Laessing; editing by Ralph Boulton)