TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Oil security guards in central Libya have threatened to block a gas pipeline to the capital Tripoli unless the government meets their salary demands, oil sources and local media said on Sunday.
If confirmed, the protest would mark an escalation of a wave of strikes at oilfields and export terminals gripping Libya, reducing its lifeline oil exports to a trickle.
The OPEC producer is facing turmoil as the government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan struggles to control heavily-armed militias who helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but kept their weapons to press for political and financial demands.
A mix of tribes and militias have seized for months four export ports in the east alone to demand regional autonomy and a greater share of oil revenues from the central government.
In a new sign of protest, members of the Petroleum Protection Force, in charge of guarding oil facilities, working in central Libya said they might block a gas pipeline running from the east to Tripoli, oil sources said.
“They said they would interrupt the gas pipeline to Tripoli in 48 hours unless the government paid their salaries,” said an engineer at Sirte Oil Co, the main state oil firm in central Libya.
“They say they have not been paid for three months,” he said, citing a statement which was also posted on social media and quoted by Libyan media.
It was not immediately clear where the group of protesting guards was based and how many members it had. A spokesmen for the PFG in Tripoli said the force had nothing to do with the group.
Tripoli and other major cities have been hit by outages blamed by the government on ageing technology and previous blockages of power stations and a gas pipeline in the west.
The former head of the oil protection force, Ibrahim Jathran, defected with his militiamen in summer to seize the eastern Ras Lanuf, Es-Sider and Zuweitina oil ports to demand Tripoli shares oil revenues with the east.
Tribal leaders have pressed Jathran to reopen the ports as public anger is rising over dwindling oil revenues but he declared talks failed two weeks ago.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said tribal leaders would make a new attempt to end the port strikes. He has warned that the government will not be able to pay public salaries if strikes continued.
The oil protests came as dozens of protesters gathered outside ministries and major institutions across Tripoli on Sunday, state news agency Lana reported.
A witness said that dozens of unarmed protesters, who placed a cement block in front of the foreign ministry’s gate in central Tripoli and attached banners accusing Zeidan and his government of failure, were preventing staff from entering.
“They don’t let us in the building,” said a senior ministry official, standing outside.
Lana also reported protests at the entrances of Zeidan’s office, the oil, finance, transport and justice ministries as well as the central bank and supreme court.
Many Libyans are unhappy that the government seems unable to provide better public services or end frequent power cuts. Zeidan blames political opponents in parliament for blocking budget payments needed to upgrade infrastructure.
The country’s oil production has fallen to 250,000 barrels a day from 1.4 million bpd in July due to seizures of ports and oilfields by tribes, militias and minorities pressing for financial and political concessions.
Reporting by Ghaith Shennib and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Ralph Boulton