* Armed factions deploying heavy weapons
* Peace talks making little progress
* Fears for future of a united Libya
* Graphic on Libya fighting link.reuters.com/xyc83w
By Ulf Laessing
BEN JAWAD, Libya, Feb 6 Hidden behind a pile of
sand, a tank points its gun towards Libya's biggest oil port on
the other side of an invisible frontier that now divides the
north African nation.
Factions fighting for control of Libya and its oil wealth
have moved columns of heavy weapons to this new front line
running through the middle of the country, escalating a conflict
that Western powers fear may lead to a national break-up four
years after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
In an attempt to prevent Libya from sliding into all-out
civil war, the United Nations hopes in the coming days to resume
peace negotiations between the warring parties, which are allied
to rival governments running what amount to competing states in
the west and east of the country. Talks so far have made little
The battle over the Es Sider oil port, 700 km (450 miles)
east of Tripoli, shows how hard it will be to overcome
mutual suspicion and rivalry in a country dominated by armed
militia groups whose allegiances are largely local.
Both sides facing each other near the town of Ben Jawad
across a front line littered with tank shells and bomb craters
are made up of former rebels who fought together to oust Gaddafi
but are now fighting each other over who owns the 2011 uprising.
"Thank God there is a dialogue. But they say they support
the dialogue and then bomb us with war planes," said Mussab
Bala, a commander in Operation Shorouq, a faction allied to the
self-proclaimed Tripoli government which has been trying
to seize Es Sider and the nearby Ras Lanuf port from the
internationally recognised government in the east.
"They target civilian facilities," Bala said, standing by a
car he says was bombed by a warplane from the eastern
government. A workshop and a bank were also hit in the raid on
Ben Jawad, whose residents have now fled.
For its part, Shorouq was accused by the United Nations of
violating a ceasefire announced last month by launching a new
attack this week. The official government says the force also
fired rockets into oil storage tanks at Es Sider, charges
Soldiers on both sides report to rival army chiefs of staff
and have the unshakeable conviction that their fight is just.
They wear the same Libyan army uniforms and drive the
same Toyota pickups that bear the insignia of a force supposed
to protect the oil ports they are fighting over. It is becoming
an expensive battle, with Libya's oil production now just one
fifth of what it was under Gaddafi and both Es Sider and Ras
Lanuf closed. The United Nations says hundreds of civilians have
been killed across Libya in fighting since last summer.
NEW, OLD BORDER
In the east of the country, the recognised government of
premier Abdullah al-Thinni and the elected House of
Representatives have allied themselves with General Khalifa
Haftar, a Gaddafi-era officer who now commands his own troops
and air force.
The politicians were forced to flee when a faction called
Libya Dawn, to which Shorouq is allied, seized Tripoli in
August, reinstating the old parliament and setting up an
alternative administration. Neither side has managed to gain the
upper hand militarily.
Shorouq comes from Misrata, a western city that is home to
some of the most battle-hardened troops from the 2011 uprising.
They moved east in December, trying to take Es Sider using
old Gaddafi-era tanks and Toyota trucks, some of which are so
new that they still have customs stickers on the roof.
But while Mussab and his men can see the outskirts of Es
Sider, General Haftar's air force has stopped any further
advance. Whenever they move forward a warplane takes off from
Ras Lanuf and bombs them.
"If it wasn't for the planes, we would have finished them,"
said Fadi, another fighter from Misrata. "But we will liberate
The conflict pits communities from the western coast against
tribes in the east and hinterland. It has effectively reinstated
the historic border between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, two
regions from the Italian colonial era which merged with Fezzan
in the south when Libya became independent after World War Two.
The new front line has cut the Tripoli to Benghazi coast
road in half. Two sand berms block cars and commercial vehicles
east of Ben Jawad.
In the east of the country, long neglected by Gaddafi, calls
for a federal state or even secession are popular. Ibrahim
Jathran, commander of a militia force holding Es Sider, backs an
independent Cyrenaica should Tripoli's new rulers win
"We are against partition. We want one Libya," said Bala,
drawing a map of Libya in the sand with a heart in the middle.
"But these groups want to take the oil for Cyrenaica."
One challenge for mediators is that so many factions are
involved in the fighting. A university in Misrata temporarily
closed to allow students to join up while firms also give staff
time off. In the eastern city of Benghazi young men have joined
Haftar's forces fighting a separate battle against Islamist
troops that has claimed hundreds of lives.
"I am an engineer at the (Misrata) steel firm. I came to
serve my country," said Ramadan, a Shorouq trooper, in Ben
At the front, the fighters rest under a solar panel near
their anti-aircraft guns. Further back, Ramadan and his comrades
are taking a break in a house, sitting on pillows, guns stacked
next to water bottles and boxes of new army kit.
In the ghost town of Ben Jawad, men from Misrata prepare a
meal of couscous in a government office. "We will continue until
the liberation," said an administrator, while his staff packed
lunch boxes to be sent to the front.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)