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* Zeidan warns army has orders to break up port blockade
* El Sharara oilfield production also halved by weather
* Analysts see military operation difficult at ports
By Ghaith Shennib
TRIPOLI, Feb 3 Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan
stepped up the pressure on protesters blocking eastern ports on
Monday, telling them he had weeks ago ordered troops to prepare
to move there to end their blockade.
Zeidan has repeatedly warned he may use force to free up
three key ports where protesters demanding more autonomy from
Tripoli have cut off around 600,000 barrels per day of oil
exports since summer.
"Weeks ago we ordered the minister of defence to give his
instructions to the chief of staff to move toward the occupied
ports in the east," Zeidan said at a news conference. "Now the
matter is in the hands of the army command."
He gave no further details.
An army spokesman did not immediately respond to calls
seeking details of any troop movements.
Armed protesters who defected from the state-run Petroleum
Facilities Guard (PFG) in August seized Ras Lanuf, Es Sider and
Zuetina ports, led by Ibrahim al-Jathran, a former rebel who
fought against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya's 2011 uprising.
The oil port standoff is one of several disputes involving
rival militias and former rebels who fought in the civil war
against Gaddafi but have since refused to disarm and now use
their military muscle to make demands on the state.
Protests at oilfields and installations have battered the
OPEC country's economy, cutting off the key source of state
revenues just as the fragile government is struggling to gain
momentum in the country's transition to democracy.
Zeidan managed to negotiate the end of another protest in
the west late last year to restart production at the El Sharara
oilfield with 340,000 barrels per day coming back online.
Production at El Sharara was taken down to 175,000 bpd on
Monday because of closure of western ports due to bad weather, a
spokesman for the state-run National Oil Corporation said.
Negotiations have gone nowhere with the eastern federalists
who have set up their own self-styled Cyrenaica government. But
local eastern tribal leaders and officials say support is waning
for Jathran within the federalist movement.
An attempt to load a tanker at Es Sider port ended abruptly
when the navy opened fire, making clear how difficult it would
be for Jathran to sell oil independently of Tripoli.
But with Libya's nascent army still in training, most
analysts say it will also be difficult for Zeidan to send troops
to free up the ports, where Jathran has dug in with his own
Two and a half years after the fall of Gaddafi, the brigades
of former fighters and militias who still control parts of the
country are one of the greatest challenges to Libya's attempts
to forge its new democracy and a stable government.
(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by William Hardy and Peter