UPDATE 1-Full return of Libyan oil to ease global pressure
* Libya to export 1.4 mln bpd in April, top pre-war level
* Italy still biggest partner, China jumps to 2nd place (Adds detail, background)
By Jessica Donati
LONDON, March 19 (Reuters) - Libya's oil exports are set to return to full pre-war levels by April this year, beating even the most optimistic estimates and potentially easing a global shortfall of oil caused by outages and conflicts.
Libya plans to export almost 1.4 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) in April, a senior National Oil Corp (NOC) official said. At that level, its exports will exceed deliveries in February 2011 before the uprising that ousted Muammar Gaddafi began.
The rapid surge in flows, chiefly to importers in the Mediterranean, may ease pressure on global markets caused by conflicts in several oil producing countries as well as the loss of Iranian oil in July when Western sanctions kick in.
European refiners are struggling to cope as these supply problems have pushed Brent crude up by more than 17 percent since the start of the year to a high of $126.05 a barrel on Monday.
In post-war Libya, Italy remains Libya's biggest oil trading partner, accounting for almost a third of its total exports.
But Libya's second-biggest oil export destination for the year is now China, which has accounted for around 17 percent of total exports since the start of the year, NOC data shows.
France and Spain are still important clients, taking shares slightly below 10 percent of the total. But flows to Germany appear to have dropped sharply to 3 percent from 14 percent before the war.
The rise in exports is partly due to a delay in restarting Libya's largest refinery, Ras Lanuf, which accounts for well over half of the country's refining capacity.
The 220,000 bpd plant remains offline, freeing up volumes of crude for export from fields in the East. Ras Lanuf was initially scheduled to restart by the end of 2011, but a problem in supplying the refinery has held up the process.
The NOC says the reason for the delay is a lack of supply from Sarir, a field that is operated by Arabian Gulf Oil Company (Agoco), a subsidiary in the country's oil-rich east.
The oilfield, which also feeds the refinery, needs to return to full production before Agoco will resume supplies to Ras Lanuf. This is expected to happen in April.
Industry sources also say there is a dispute over the payment terms offered to the refinery, which is operated by a joint-venture with a powerful Arab Emirates businessman.
"We are waiting until Sarir output reaches 310,000 bpd," the senior NOC official said, denying there was a disagreement over payments.
"Nothing else. There are just some issues under discussion," he said.
The rise in April exports also is partly due to bad weather this month, which has delayed a number of shipments.
Daily production remains at around 1.4 million barrels of oil, while a further 2 million to 3 million barrels will be exported over the course of the month from supplies already held in tanks.
In a further sign that Libyan oil flows are recovering faster than expected, a spot tender for 600,000 barrels of crude for loading in early April was due to close on Monday. (Reporting by Jessica Donati, editing by Jane Baird)