BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — Libyan forces loyal to a powerful general say they have seized a third oil terminal from a rival militia in the east, giving the divisive leader a bargaining chip in negotiations with rival U.N.-backed authorities in the capital, Tripoli.
Forces led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter said late Sunday that they had seized the Zueitina terminal from a militia known as the Petroleum Facilities Guards, hours after capturing the nearby terminals of Ras Lanuf and al-Sidra.
Most of Libya's oil exports went through the three terminals before the militia seized them more than two years ago.
Hifter's army units urged the state-run oil corporation, which is based in Tripoli, to resume oil exports.
Libya drifted into chaos following the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and today is split between rival parliaments and governments in the east and west, each backed by a loose array of militias and tribes.
Hifter enjoys the support of the internationally-recognized parliament, which meets in the east. The parliament has refused to approve the formation of a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, in the west, in part because of differences over Hifter's future role in Libya.
The capture of the oil terminals could strengthen Hifter's hand, making it more difficult to ignore demands from him and others in the east for more clout in a power-sharing government.
The U.N.-brokered presidency council — which is tasked with forming a unity government— said late Sunday that the takeover by Hifter's forces is "contradicting the path of reconciliation and frustrating Libyans."
The nine-member council is divided between supporters and opponents of Hifter.
Martin Kobler, the U.N. envoy to Libya, expressed concern over the general's seizure of the terminals. He later called for a cease-fire and recognition of the U.N.-brokered government.
Libyan forces loyal to the U.N.-backed government are currently battling a powerful Islamic State affiliate in the central city of Sirte with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.
The U.S. and other Western nations view the U.N.-backed government in the capital as the best hope for unifying Libyans and defeating the extremist group.
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told reporters on Monday during a visit to Cyprus that Rome had agreed to a request from the Libyan unity government to send a military hospital, "which obviously will have its protection," the Italian news agency ANSA reported.
Asked about media reports that some 200 Italian paratroopers could be deployed to protect the hospital, Gentiloni replied that more details will be announced later by the Italian defense minister.
Associated Press writer Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.