ZUEITINA, Libya Jan 15 Libya's Zueitina oil terminal should reopen in coming days, officials said, after the oil ministry gave the go-ahead to start planning the resumption of activities following the latest disruption to the OPEC member's economic lifeline.
At the facility which lies some 800 kms east of the capital Tripoli, protesters who had forced the shutdown of operations last month were no longer there as negotiations over their social demands continue.
"The port is closed, within a few days the situation will get better and work will resume," Abduladeem Shareed, security supervisor at the Zueitina terminal, said on Tuesday.
Deputy Oil Minister Omar Shakmak echoed this. "We gave the management the go-ahead to plan restarting the operation as soon as possible in consideration of all the security and safety requirements mainly for people and equipment," he told Reuters by telephone.
"I think they are making good progress in this sense."
No oil has been shipped out of Zueitina, which exports around 60,000-70,000 barrels per day, since the start of January due to protests that began in December. A crude shipment left the terminal around end-December.
Protesters' threats have affected mainly the shipping of oil rather than gas, because there had been a safe shutdown of the oilfields pumping to the terminal.
Once pumping resumes, it would take 10 to 14 working days for the first shipment to leave the terminal, Shakmak said.
"The (production) operation could start anytime within this weekend. Next week, we're going to visit the terminal concerning the restart of activities," he said.
Oil installations have become a focal point of protests in Libya in the wake of July polls that ushered in the North African country's first elected authorities.
The administration is still struggling to impose order on a vast and divided country awash with arms and militias after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in late 2011.
In December, protesters calling for jobs and other social demands forced their way into Zueitina port's management offices and ordered the port director to shut down operations.
The chairman of Zueitina Oil Company, which works alongside U.S. firm Occidental Petroleum Corp, later said they were persuaded to leave by local officials but did not have details on whether an actual agreement was reached.
Workers have since been mainly carrying out maintenance.
"They stood outside and forced this closure. People want more security to be able to do their jobs," one Zueitina employee said, adding the protesters had numbered around 100.
Oil Minister Abdelbari al-Arusi said last week his ministry had reached agreement with the army chief, defence and interior ministries to secure exporting terminals, in light of the spate of protests that have caused disruption to Libya's key industry after it returned close to pre-war output levels of 1.6 mln bpd.
"We need support to enhance security inside the complex," Shareed at Zueitina said. "If this keeps happening, the country will lose money."
At Zueitina, a few cars belonging to a force affiliated to the defence ministry guarded the eastern entrance to the terminal - where the protesters had first come - but no additional security forces have been despatched, security officials said.
"We are neutral. They (the protesters) have problems with the company, we try to secure it and mediate," said Jibril Al-Omani, in charge of the security force at Zueitina, part of a wider Defence Ministry force for strategic sites and borders.
Senior oil officials said talks with the protesters were still going on. In the small town of Zueitina, some said they were giving the government until the end of the month for their demands to be met, highlighting the fragility of the situation.
"If they don't, we will close it again," one said. (Additional reporting by Ghaith Shennib; editing by James Jukwey)