CAIRO – Confrontation deepened Sunday between Libya’s weak central government and a rebel militia that has launched a brazen bid to sell crude oil and seize the profits for itself.
The episode was emblematic of the chaos that has beset the North African nation in the three years since the toppling and killing of President Moammar Gadhafi. But this latest crisis – centered on oil, the country’s economic mainstay – appeared to mark the most serious challenge yet to the splintered interim administration, threatening a full-scale unraveling of a state that scarcely exists in more than name.
The current struggle began unfolding Saturday when a North Korean-flagged oil tanker docked at the rebel-controlled port of Es Sedr and began taking on a $36-million cargo of 350,000 barrels of crude oil, Libyan officials said. Libya’s state news agency LANA reported late Saturday that the Defense Ministry had authorized attacking the ship if it left port, a warning it repeated Sunday.
However, it was unclear whether the Libyan government had the ability to make good on its threat.
At the same time, the Arab League’s ministerial council announced its full support for efforts to maintain Libya’s “unity and sovereignty.”
The Defense Ministry said the tanker had entered Libyan waters without permission and that “responsibility for any resulting damage” rested with the ship’s owner, LANA reported.
Rebel factions, many of them led by former anti-Kadafi commanders, have repeatedly challenged the interim government, going so far as to briefly detain Prime Minister Ali Zeidan last October. Es Sedr and two other crucial ports in the country’s east have been under militia control since August, and the rebels have demanded regional autonomy and a larger share of oil money.
Ibrahim Jathran, the head of the faction controlling Es Sedr, had previously said the group would bypass central authority and export crude oil unilaterally, but the weekend marked the first time that the rebels had actually attempted to do so.
Since Gadhafi was toppled, Libya has tried to rebuild a national army that answers to the central government, but armed groups in the east and south, many of them with strong tribal backing, are considerably more powerful.
Many of those groups are familiar with the ins and outs of the oil industry; Jathran, for example, was once employed in a government-paid protection force for ports and oil installations. As unrest has taken hold in Libya, the country’s oil output has fallen dramatically in the last seven months, dropping to about one-sixth of previous levels.