Libya: NATO dismisses government allegations of air attack on oil fields

Eric Watkins
OGJ Oil Diplomacy Editor

LOS ANGELES, Apr. 7 -- Libya’s oil and gas industry has become a victim in the country’s month-long civil war, with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi accusing each other of launching attacks on oil fields and associated infrastructure.

"The accusation by Col. Gadhafi that NATO was responsible for fires in the Sarir oil fields is false," said NATO in a statement from its base in Naples, which is overseeing military operations in Libya.

"Attacks last week by pro-Gadhafi forces have resulted in a number of skirmishes with anti-Gadhafi forces and at least one fire at an oil facility in the region of Sarir," the NATO statement said.

NATO’s denial followed claims by Libya’s deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim who yesterday accused British warplanes of bombing the Al-Sarir oil field in southeast Libya.

"British fighter bombers raided the Al-Sarir oil field, killing three guards at the site and wounding other people working at the field," said Kaim, who also alleged that a pipeline linking Al-Sarir to Tobruk had been damaged in the attack.

“There is no doubt this aggression…is against international law and is not covered by the UN resolution,” Kaim said.

"We have never conducted strike operations in this area because [Gadhafi’s] forces were not threatening civilian populations from there," said Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, commander of the NATO mission.

Bouchard said that NATO, acting under a UN mandate to protect civilians from Gadhafi's forces, had no reason to bomb the area, and that fires at the oil field were a result of Gadhafi’s attacks.

“The only one responsible for this fire is the Gadhafi regime, and we know he wants to disrupt oil getting to Tobruk," Bouchard said, referring to rebel plans to export supplies of crude oil from the Marsa el Hariga terminal near Tobruk.

Abjeljalil Mayuf, an oil official in rebel-controlled east Libya supported NATO’s denial of an air strike against Sarir, instead accusing Gadhafi’s forces of attacking the area.

Another rebel spokesman said that oil production in the country’s eastern region—now held by opposition forces—has been halted by three days of attacks by forces loyal to Gadhafi.

The competing claims over responsibility for the attacks on the fields came just after rebel forces had begun to export oil again after a shutdown of nearly three weeks.

The Liberian-registered MT Equator sailed from Marsa el Hariga on Apr. 6, with 130,000 tonnes of oil bound for Singapore, according to the London-based Lloyd’s List shipping newspaper.

The rebels, who need to raise funds for their struggle against Gadhafi, claim to have an agreement with Qatar, which will sell their oil and use the profits to pay salaries and buy food, medicine and weapons.

"The United States is supportive of that sale and supportive of the transitional government for that sale," said US Energy Sec. Steven Chu, whose remarks followed similar ones by the European Union earlier this week (OGJ Online, Apr. 5, 2011).

However, the alleged attacks on fields and infrastructure in the region mean a further disruption of further oil reaching Tobruk, a point acknowledged by rebel spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga.

“I think we will not depend on oil revenues in the coming stage because our production has been affected in this crisis,” said Ghoga, who explained that armored vehicles attacked the Messla oil field on Apr. 4 and 5, then attacked the Sarir oilfield on Apr. 6.

Ghoga could not detail the extent of the damage but acknowledged that rebel forces cannot sustain even the reduced production they had been claiming of 100,000 b/d.

“Col. Qaddafi seeks to deprive us of even this by hitting the oil fields that feed this port,” said Ghoga, who added that rebel forces still control around 1 million bbl of oil in storage at the Marsa el Hariga terminal.

The Messla and Sarir fields form part of the Sirte basin region, which holds 80% of Libya’s 46.4 billion bbl of oil reserves.

Sarir has estimated reserves of 12 billion bbl, with a pipeline carrying its oil northward to Tobruk, while Sarir, 40 km to the north of Messla, holds an estimated 3 billion bbl of oil.

Shokri Ghanem, chairman of Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corp., told Reuters on Apr. 7 that the country’s production had fallen to 250,000-300,000 b/d compared to 1.6 million b/d before the uprising, which began on Feb. 17.

Ghanem called the rebels’ shipment of Libyan oil “very sad” and said it would only contribute to tensions and divide the country.

Contact Eric Watkins at hippalus@yahoo.com.

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