TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya warned on Monday it will attack and destroy any tanker illegally exporting oil after forces last week fired at a Liberian-flagged tanker close to the country's largest crude oil export terminal.
The tanker, which sought to load crude oil that armed protesters blocking the country's main export ports were attempting to sell illegally, managed to flee, Abdul Razak al-Shbahi, the spokesperson for the minister of defense, told Reuters.
Es Sider is the largest of several ports including neighboring Ras Lanuf located in the country's east that have been mostly shut since end of July when protests by security guards and oil workers over pay and other political demands led to the closure of many oilfields.
This has cut the country's exports and production to their lowest levels, with exports less than 500,000 barrels per day, since the civil war in 2011. Before then, export capacity was up to 1.25 million bpd.
The country's nascent armed forces had stepped up coastal guard patrols and put on alert three air bases with instructions given to military aircraft to "bomb" any vessel that approached Libyan waters to prevent illegal sales of Libyan oil, Shbahi said.
"Three air bases have been put on heightened alert to strike and destroy by any means any oil tanker that did not have any contractual deals with the country's national oil company," he added.
"The defense ministry will not hesitate to response in any way possible against anyone who tries to steal the country's wealth," the ministry of defense official said.
Libya said earlier this month that it would use military force if necessary to prevent striking security guards from exporting oil independently.
The protests are located mainly in the eastern part of Libya, which has been pushing for greater autonomy since starting the uprising against Gaddafi.
Government officials say the strikes are being orchestrated by federalists who want more independence for the east and are trying to finance their cause by illegally selling the oil stored at terminals.
The country's national oil company has declared force majeure from contracts from the eastern terminals to relieve the country from contract breaches caused by the standoff, officials say.
The distortions to Libya's oil sector risk crippling its economic lifeline and choking off state revenues. The government says it has lost around $2 billion in revenues so far.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Marguerita Choy)