British Petrofac threatens to leave Tunisia over protests, officials say

A general view of the facilities at the Chergui gas field of British oilfield services company Petrofac, on the island of Kerkennah, Tunisia, April 17, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Amine Ben Aziza

TUNIS (Reuters) - British gas company Petrofac is threatening to leave Tunisia and end its investment if protests over jobs that have disrupted gas production for nine months are not stopped immediately, government officials said on Monday.

Since January, Petrofac has been forced to disrupt gas production in Tunisia because of sit-ins by people seeking jobs. Violent protests erupted in January and the army intervened to protect the company in Kerkennah Island in southern Tunisia.

“Petrofac officials told us they will be forced to declare force majeure and resort to international courts for their losses if the production will not return immediately,” Energy Minister Hela Cheikrouhou told Express FM, a local radio station, on Monday.

A Petrofac representative in Tunisia declined to comment. But another Petrofac official who asked not to be named confirmed the company was preparing to leave if the sit-ins continued.

The threat by the company, which provides about 13 percent of Tunisia’s natural gas needs, is another serious test for the government of new Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who has vowed to take a tough line with protests that hit key sectors.

Government officials say that importing gas from Algeria to make up for the shortfall caused by Petrofac’s production disruptions has cost the government about $100 million (£76.4 million) in the nine months of this year.

Tunisia’s state-run phosphate companies earlier this month announced an agreement to hire 2,800 new workers after protests over jobs halted production and threatened to stop exports. Disruptions in that industry have cost the government billions in losses in the last five years.

Reporting By Tarek Amara; editing by Patrick Markey