* Has established base in Benghazi
* In talks with senior NTC members (Writes through with comment, detail, background)
By Paul Hoskins
LONDON, Oct 4 (Reuters) - Heritage Oil has bought control of a Benghazi-based oil services firm, striking the first upstream deal in Libya since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi and building on the British explorer’s reputation as a first mover into political hot-spots.
Heritage said on Tuesday it had bought 51 percent of Sahara Oil Services Holdings for $19.5 million. Reuters reported last month it was touting for business in Libya.
The deal is also a win for Britain which, like France, is hoping that early backing for Gaddafi’s opponents will help its firms win business in Libya.
Investing in Libya is fraught with risks given the continued fighting there, analysts say, but hopes for a rapid recovery in oil production highlight potential returns on what is a relatively small outlay for cash-rich Heritage.
Reuters reported last month Heritage was in Benghazi offering oil field maintenance in the hope of gaining access to Libya’s vast, high quality oil reserves.
A number of diplomatic and industry sources, as well as a member of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), had said John Holmes, a former SAS commando and retired British Army Major General, was among fixers working on deals in the country for Heritage and other firms.
Heritage, which had previously declined to comment, said on Tuesday it had established a base in Benghazi and had been in talks with senior members of the NTC.
Heritage said that as well as having necessary permits to provide onshore and offshore oil field services, Sahara Oil Services had the rights to own and operate oil and gas licences in Libya.
“Through this acquisition Heritage is exploring ways to gain access to key producing fields and other licence opportunities in Libya,” Heritage said, adding it was also hoping to help “rehabilitate” existing fields.
Heritage Oil chief executive and biggest shareholder Tony Buckingham has a long history in Africa, building a company valued at $1 billion that has been on the lookout for acquisitions since selling its stakes in Ugandan wells in a disputed $1.35 billion deal last year.
“This is another off-piste move by Heritage, but this is a company that makes unexpected strategic moves,” JP Morgan analyst Jessica Saadat said in a research note. “Heritage has prided itself on its first mover capability ... Its core shareholders ought not to be too surprised.”
Buckingham, whose company also has operations in Iraq, previously worked for private military contracting firm Executive Outcomes, providing mercenary forces in Africa.
Saadat said Heritage’s investment was modest given it has net cash of $468 million and noted the potential to “unlock material upstream growth options in Libya”.
Britain and France have moved fast to encourage business deals in Libya, with both hosting conferences and facilitating trips by executives.
NTC members have said that while British and French companies can expect to play a key role in rebuilding Libya, months of political uncertainty lie ahead with no immediate clarity as to who will end up running the country.
Heritage Oil shares were down 2.8 percent at 0935 GMT. (Editing by Myles Neligan and Dan Lalor)