TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Libya's state-run oil corporation has declared 11 oil fields in the country non-operational after attacks by suspected Islamic State militants, opting for a force majeure clause that exempts the state from contractual obligations.
The National Oil Corporation blamed Islamist-backed authorities in the capital Tripoli for failing to protect the oil fields. The statement, issued late Wednesday, said "theft, looting, sabotage and destruction" of the oil fields have been on the rise despite pleas for the authorities to ensure the safety of Libya's oil installations.
"If security deteriorates, the corporation will be forced to close all fields and ports, which will result in a total deficit in state revenues and directly impact people's live, including with power outage," the statement said. It urged the country's feuding political factions to "put state interest above all and stand together against destruction."
Three years since the ouster and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Libya is engulfed in chaos and bitterly divided between two rival governments and a wide array of militias. The internationally recognized government and parliament were forced to relocate to the far east of the country after Tripoli fell to militias backed by Islamist factions last summer.
A force majeure, meaning superior force, is a contract clause that frees a party from liability whenever an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the party's control takes place.
The development came hours after militants from the central coastal city of Sirte — under control of an Islamic State affiliate — stormed the al-Dhahra oil field, about 170 kilometers (100 miles) to the south.
The militants surrounded the oil field from three sides, exchanged gunfire with the guards and prompted the Tripoli-based government to launch airstrikes, which ultimately failed to stop the assault. When the guards ran out of ammunition, the militants stormed the field, looted it and blew up buildings.
Three other oil fields have been attacked, including al-Mabrouk, where 10 guards were killed and seven foreigners abducted on Feb. 4. A week later, on Feb. 13, the al-Bahi field, about 250 kilometers (156 miles) from Sirte, was also attacked.
Libya's turmoil has provided fertile ground for Islamic State-linked militants to set up a foothold in the North African country. The militants control Darna in eastern Libya as well as Sirte, and have carried out several deadly suicide bombings across the country. In January, they stormed a luxury hotel in Tripoli, and in February released a video showing the beheading of 21 captured Egyptian Christians. The Egyptian military launched airstrikes on Darna in retaliation.
On Feb. 21, two Islamic State suicide bombers killed at least 40 people in the eastern town of Qubba in one of the deadliest days in Libya since the 2011 uprising.
Libya's oil production has meanwhile dropped to about 25 percent of normal levels. It recently reached 500,000 barrels per day, according to Oil Minister Mashallah al-Zewi.
On Wednesday the country's elected government made an urgent appeal to the U.N. Security Council to either lift an arms embargo completely or allow exemptions so that its army can fight the Islamic State affiliates and other militant groups.
U.N. envoy Bernardino Leon meanwhile launched a new round of peace talks among the rival groups in the Moroccan resort town of Skhirat on Thursday. The two sides have yet to meet face-to-face in three previous rounds of talks, but U.N. officials said they hoped to bring them together over the next few days.
"There is a sense of, if not optimism, at least a sense that it is possible to make a deal, and this is something very important, because in the last months this was not the case," Leon said.
"They are the key stakeholders," said Samir Ghattas, the spokesman for the U.N. mission to Libya. "There is no deadline, but things are deteriorating and time is running out. Clearly everyone knows there is no military solution."
In a goodwill gesture, Libyan air force commander Saqr al-Jaroushi told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya network that he is halting airstrikes — which have targeted both Tripoli and Islamic State strongholds — for three days to give the talks a chance.
Associated Press writers Cara Anna at the United Nations and Paul Schemm in Skhirat, Morocco contributed to this report.