By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya has strengthened its oil protection force in southwestern oilfields near the Algerian border after the In Amenas attack in its neighbor.
In an interview with Reuters, Colonel Ali Elahrash, head of Libya's Petroleum Faculty Guard, said men from the Western Mountain town of Zintan had been sent in as reinforcements to boost border security as well to oilfields in the area.
Last week's raid on the Algerian desert plant, about 100 km (60 miles) from the Libyan border pushed Saharan militancy to the top of the global agenda.
Libyan oilfields, like Italy's Eni's El Feel and Spain's Repsol's Sharara, are several hundred miles away.
Oil force members on leave swiftly returned to work, while other former rebel fighters from Zintan - whose men already guards oil fields in the area - were also dispatched.
"As soon as we heard about what happened in Algeria we upped the level of security, especially in the area close to the border," Elahrash said at his office in the Libyan capital.
"Most of the forces have been sent to the border, they are doing a lot of patrols which is helpful for protecting the oil fields; support has also been sent to the fields. We think there are enough forces and enough equipment to protect the area."
Walid Hassan Mohammed, director of public relations, said hundreds of men were sent; while the force usually deploys 50 to 100 men at fields there, it now had at least 100 at the sites.
The 15,000 strong Petroleum Faculty Guard, the majority made up of former rebel fighters from the 2011 war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi, is divided into five branches across the country.
The southwestern area - which looks after the El Feel, Sharara and other oilfields - comes under the Zintan branch.
An operations room has been set up in Zintan and Tripoli.
"They may not have the experience because many of them are not from the army, they are rebel fighters but they want to protect their country," Elahrash said.
NEW EQUIPMENT NEEDED
OPEC members Libya and Algeria are Africa's third and fourth largest oil producers with Libya also holding the largest oil reserves on the continent.
A foreign worker close to the Libyan-Algerian border said he had seen more pick-ups mounted with anti-aircraft guns and a boosting of man power in the last few days.
"Pretty much everyone was on essential expat manning prior to the (In Amenas) incident, due to the instability across the country and there doesn't seem to have been any radical change since last week," he said.
Mohammed said embassies with workers in the area had been in touch with the force over security in the last few days.
Eni is boosting its security in North Africa, a source familiar with the matter said, while another added it had not considered repatriation of its foreign staff at El Feel.
BP, which had staff at In Amenas and also has exploration rights in western Libya, has a few expatriate staff in Tripoli and fewer than 100 local staff, a spokesman said.
"We are reviewing security across the region," he said.
While the return of foreign oil companies to Libya helped it climb back up close to pre-war output of 1.6 million barrels per day, the full return of expatriate workers has been slow to the country, awash with weapons, because of precarious security.
Elahrash said movement outside a desert camp or oilfield has to be accompanied by members of the oil protection force.
"Everyone knows that protecting the oilfields is something very important - the foreign oil companies would not work here unless the security was good," he said. "No local or foreign company has received a single threat ... The security conditions of all the companies working in oilfields are very good."
However the force admits it does not have the equipment it needs: proper communications, night vision equipment or cars for the desert. Instead, the guard, of which 2,000 are army-trained, use medium to light weapons left over from the war.
"We are missing technology and new materials but at the same time we are able to protect all these areas in fields with the old equipment we already have," Elahrash said, adding the training the guards still lacked could begin in March.
"They must learn how to work in oilfields, how to secure them," he said, adding about 3,500 men had already been trained.
The men signed contracts with the force, which has a budget from the National Oil Corporation to pay salaries, which start at 1,000 ($770) Libyan dinars a month and reach 1,600 dinars.
Asked what message he could give to worried foreign oil companies, Elahrash said: "The Libyan nation can protect all the foreigners who work on its land."
(Additional reporting by Jessica Donati and Alex Lawler in London; Stephen Jewkes in Milan, editing by William Hardy)