* Hundreds of men sent to southwestern Libya to boost
* Italy's Eni, Spain's Repsol operate in area
* Oil force still lacking proper equipment, training
By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
TRIPOLI, Jan 23 Libya has strengthened its oil
protection force in southwestern oilfields near the Algerian
border after the In Amenas attack in its neighbour.
In an interview with Reuters, Colonel Ali Elahrash, head of
Libya's Petroleum Faculty Guard, said men from the Western
Mountain town of Zintan had been sent in as reinforcements to
boost border security as well to oilfields in the area.
Last week's raid on the Algerian desert plant, about 100 km
(60 miles) from the Libyan border pushed Saharan militancy to
the top of the global agenda.
Libyan oilfields, like Italy's Eni's El Feel and
Spain's Repsol's Sharara, are several hundred miles away.
Oil force members on leave swiftly returned to work, while
other former rebel fighters from Zintan - whose men already
guards oil fields in the area - were also despatched.
"As soon as we heard about what happened in Algeria we upped
the level of security, especially in the area close to the
border," Elahrash said at his office in the Libyan capital.
"Most of the forces have been sent to the border, they are
doing a lot of patrols which is helpful for protecting the oil
fields; support has also been sent to the fields. We think there
are enough forces and enough equipment to protect the area."
Walid Hassan Mohammed, director of public relations, said
hundreds of men were sent; while the force usually deploys 50 to
100 men at fields there, it now had at least 100 at the sites.
The 15,000 strong Petroleum Faculty Guard, the majority made
up of former rebel fighters from the 2011 war that ousted
Muammar Gaddafi, is divided into five branches across the
The southwestern area - which looks after the El Feel,
Sharara and other oilfields - comes under the Zintan branch.
An operations room has been set up in Zintan and Tripoli.
"They may not have the experience because many of them are
not from the army, they are rebel fighters but they want to
protect their country," Elahrash said.
NEW EQUIPMENT NEEDED
OPEC members Libya and Algeria are Africa's third and fourth
largest oil producers with Libya also holding the largest oil
reserves on the continent.
A foreign worker close to the Libyan-Algerian border said he
had seen more pick-ups mounted with anti-aircraft guns and a
boosting of man power in the last few days.
"Pretty much everyone was on essential expat manning prior
to the (In Amenas) incident, due to the instability across the
country and there doesn't seem to have been any radical change
since last week," he said.
Mohammed said embassies with workers in the area had been in
touch with the force over security in the last few days.
Eni is boosting its security in North Africa, a source
familiar with the matter said, while another added it had not
considered repatriation of its foreign staff at El Feel.
BP, which had staff at In Amenas and also has
exploration rights in western Libya, has a few expatriate staff
in Tripoli and fewer than 100 local staff, a spokesman said.
"We are reviewing security across the region," he said.
While the return of foreign oil companies to Libya helped it
climb back up close to pre-war output of 1.6 million barrels per
day, the full return of expatriate workers has been slow to the
country, awash with weapons, because of precarious security.
Elahrash said movement outside a desert camp or oilfield has
to be accompanied by members of the oil protection force.
"Everyone knows that protecting the oilfields is something
very important - the foreign oil companies would not work here
unless the security was good," he said. "No local or foreign
company has received a single threat ... The security conditions
of all the companies working in oilfields are very good."
However the force admits it does not have the equipment it
needs: proper communications, night vision equipment or cars for
the desert. Instead, the guard, of which 2,000 are army-trained,
use medium to light weapons left over from the war.
"We are missing technology and new materials but at the same
time we are able to protect all these areas in fields with the
old equipment we already have," Elahrash said, adding the
training the guards still lacked could begin in March.
"They must learn how to work in oilfields, how to secure
them," he said, adding about 3,500 men had already been trained.
The men signed contracts with the force, which has a budget
from the National Oil Corporation to pay salaries, which start
at 1,000 ($770) Libyan dinars a month and reach 1,600 dinars.
Asked what message he could give to worried foreign oil
companies, Elahrash said: "The Libyan nation can protect all the
foreigners who work on its land."