East Libya FM demands ‘fair distribution’ to end oil closure

MOSCOW (AP) — The top diplomat in eastern Libya says the shutdown of vital oil facilities in the country would come to an end “when Libyans are guaranteed of the fair distribution of their resources.”

The closures came about when powerful tribal groups loyal to Libyan military commander Khalifa Hifter in January seized several large export terminals along Libya’s eastern coast, as well as southern oil fields. Hifter is allied with the interim government based in the east.

Oil is the lifeline of Libya’s economy and the loss in revenues has exacerbated the humanitarian situation in the country. The shutdown has caused losses of more than $1.85 billion, according to the country’s oil corporation.

“These resources are protected by our government, and by its army,” Abdelhadi Lahouij, foreign minister of the interim government told The Associated Press. “We pay the money for the police to guard the oil facilities, and protect the foreigners who are working in the oil facilities.”

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Lahouij spoke to the AP on Friday while on a trip to Russia lasting several days. He attended a conference on the Middle East hosted by the Moscow-based think tank the Valdai Discussion Club.

Hifter’s forces, which control the eastern and much of the southern part of the country, launched an offensive in April to capture Libya’s capital, Tripoli, clashing with an array of militias loosely allied with a U.N.-supported but weak government based there.

The closure of the oil facilities was seen as part of Hifter’s efforts to capture Tripoli and punish his adversaries there for sealing security and maritime agreements with Turkey, opening doors for unlimited military support from Ankara. Oil is the main source of revenue in Libya.

The Tripoli government controls only a shrinking corner of the country’s west. But it enjoys a different advantage: its control over Libya’s Central Bank, which holds the country’s oil revenue.

The opaque finances of the bank has drawn sharp criticism. Hifter’s forces accuse the bank of diverting oil assets to pay Syrian mercenaries to defend the capital.

Libya’s National Oil Corporation, which dominates Libya’s critical oil industry and is based in Tripoli, has also called repeatedly for increased transparency.

Lahouij accused the Tripoli-based government of using oil resources to pay for “mercenaries and foreign pilots” who fight on its side against Hifter forces.

Turkey, which backs the Tripoli-based administration, has sent hundreds of Syrian fighters including militants affiliated with groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group to fight against Hifter’s forces.

“When we are guaranteed a fair distribution of resources, this problem will come an end and the oil flow will return as it was,” he said.

The National Oil Corporation said losses from the oil closures have reached more than $1.85 billion as of Thursday. The daily oil production has since the closure fallen to 122,424 barrels a day from about 1.2 million.

Libya has the ninth largest known oil reserves in the world and the biggest oil reserves in Africa.

The Tripoli authorities and U.S. officials have also accused Hifter of relying on hundreds of Russian mercenaries. Sudanese armed groups from the Darfur region recently joined the fighting on both sides, according to a report by U.N. experts.

Lahouij denied that Russia has provided military assistance to Hifter’s forces. “There is no Russian military aid for… our Libyan army,” he said.

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