| MELLITAH, Libya, March 7
MELLITAH, Libya, March 7 In a country that
desperately needs to keep oil and gas exports flowing to rebuild
after civil war, paying 15,000 men with guns to guard Libya's
energy industry sounded like a good idea. Last Saturday it
The precise details of who shot at whom are murky and will
probably remain so, but when the shooting stopped at the
Mellitah gas complex 100 km (60 miles) west of the capital
Tripoli, at least one person was dead and seven injured.
Gas exports to Italy through a pipe carrying up to 8 billion
cubic metres per year - equivalent to 10 percent of Italian
consumption - have been cut off and have yet to be restarted.
Locals say the fighting involved men from the area and some
outsiders from another town, members of the Petroleum Facilities
Guard (PFG), a heavily-armed but barely-trained force recruited
to defend oil and gas plants.
Since the gun battle, the plant, jointly owned by Libya's
state oil company and Italy's ENI,, is under the
control of the special unit and the military. ENI withdrew its
foreign staff and the plant was shut down.
It is now surrounded by tanks and pickup trucks mounted with
anti-aircraft guns. Dozens of security personnel stood at
sandbagged checkpoints nearby.
"There are issues between the two sides - some even say this
belongs to them, others say it doesn't," explained a member of
the special force now guarding the plant.
"But the army has now taken over and a settlement is being
reached. We are all revolutionaries and we are all brothers."
The violence, and the threat to Libya's exports, show the
problems the country has faced taming its various heavily armed
militia groups since the civil war that overthrew Muammar
Gaddafi in 2011.
Across the country, groups of fighters have refused to
disband. Many have been given official permission to continue to
carry guns and are paid by the central authorities for guard
duties, but few have proper training and lines of command are
The Petroleum Facilities Guard force operates under the
official remit of the Defence Ministry, but only about 2,000 of
its 15,000 members have training from the military.
"The central government is struggling to exert control over
oil facilities and the result is interruptions to Libyan
production," Richard Mallison, chief policy analyst at Energy
Aspects, a consultancy, said. "It seems clear that relying on
militia will not provide reliable security at oil and gas
facilities given the disputes between different groups."
Protests have hurt Libya's oil output, which had quickly
returned almost to pre-war levels of 1.6 million barrels per day
(bpd) after the country's uprising.
"Our view is that Libyan production is going to struggle to
exceed 1.3 million bpd while the current problems continue,"
Although turf battles between militia groups have been
common since Gaddafi's fall, until Saturday oil and gas
installations had largely been spared.
In the past year, cracks have begun to show in Libya's
speedy oil recovery, but the main issues were labour unrest or
protests by local communities with social demands, rather than
full-fledged militia gun battles.
Protesters forced the closure of three major oil terminals
last July. In December, protesters demanding jobs shut down the
eastern Zueitina oil terminal. Wounded rebels demanding
compensation closed western Libya's main oil refinery twice.
In some of those cases, guards took little action to stop
disruption. But Saturday seems to have been the first time that
fighting involved the guards themselves.
Now, questions are being asked about the oil guards force
itself. It is made up of rebel fighters absorbed as "brigades" -
bands, usually from the same town, who fought together in the
war and whose loyalties often lie with their field commanders.
"There are worries among oil workers that they may be poorly
disciplined," a Libyan oil industry source acknowledged.
The PFG force is divided into five branches across Libya.
The west to the southern border with Niger is mainly guarded by
former rebel fighters of Zintan, a straggling western mountain
town of 35,000 people, which prides itself on a history of
martial prowess far beyond its modest size and prosperity.
As part of the PFG force, Zintan fighters have guarded major
oilfields like Eni's El Feel and Repsol's Sharara in
the southwest as well as Mellitah on the Mediterranean coast.
More Zintanis have been deployed to guard oil and gas
installations and the border since January's attack by militants
on a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria. But locals in towns
where the complexes are located sometimes resent the outsiders.
Saturday's fighting at Mellitah erupted from a quarrel that
had dragged in the Zintani fighters and armed men from the
nearby town of Zuwara. There, residents said locals were unhappy
with the behaviour of some Zintanis and tried to evict them.
Two bouts of fighting followed before state armed forces
"The majority of people didn't like them there but nothing
was done about it," said Yussef al-Hassairi, a member of the
Zuwara local council, describing attitudes towards the Zintanis.
"In future, those guarding Mellitah should mainly be from Zuwara
and nearby towns. There is local agreement on this."
Mokhtar al-Akhdar of the Zintan military council said it was
important that forces guarding oil and gas bases were controlled
by the central authorities.
"The army and defence ministry should take charge of
guarding vital installations," he said. "There shouldn't be
A PFG spokesman said the future force guarding Mellitah
would be mixed with men from different regional areas.
"There will be strict rules. If anyone is going to make any
problems or not stick to the rules, they will be fired," Walid
Hassan Mohammed, PFG director of public relations, said.
Mellitah Chairman Abdufattah Shagan said it would take days
for operations at the complex to resume normally.
"The security issue is a top priority in all the country,
not just the oil sector," he told Reuters. "Without security we
will not be able to run any operation."
PFG members accept that they have a way to go but take pride
in their work. "We need training," one said. "But we can protect
the Libyan treasure".