CAIRO (Reuters) - Libya’s biggest oilfield, shut down by gunmen last week, may struggle to rebuild production as the conflict splintering the desert nation draws in ever more groups of fighters, including poor southern tribes staking a claim to land resources.
The 340,000-barrels-a day El Sharara oilfield was attacked last week by gunmen who shut off a main source of government revenue and shattered hopes the oil industry would escape Libya’s turmoil three years after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.
While oil workers said the main gunmen were fighters supporting Operation Dawn - the armed group that seized Tripoli in August and prompted Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni to flee east - they were backed by other fighters from the region, locals say.
But, the locals added, that alliance could be only temporary as the desert south is controlled by tribes who take few orders from anyone.
So the battle for the oil field in the deep south of Libya’s Sahara desert seems likely to replicate the same fractured and complicated pattern seen throughout the rest of the country - which has already had two governments and parliaments since the summer - as towns fight towns and tribes take on tribes.
Heightening the tension is the fact that the south - known by its historic name Fezzan - is the poorest region in Libya, largely overlooked by Tripoli governments who exploited the oil but did little to develop the area.
Local armed residents have twice shut down the field since October 2013 to make financial and political demands such as asking for better political representation or national identity cards needed to claim state benefits.
That situation has worsened since summer as the fighting and political struggle hampered work at government ministries and cut off supply routes. Everything from food to medicine to bank notes has become more difficult to find.
“People in the south do not benefit at all from the oil,” said Ibrahim Karnafuda, a member of the House of Representatives from Ubari, a town next to the El Sharara field.
“Young people think they are entitled to protect the field because it lies in their area.”
The competing groups are not short of munitions, seized during the 2011 uprising from Gaddafi arsenals and Western allies which shipped them in, and now distributed widely throughout the country. From light arms such as Kalashnikovs, pistols, and hand grenades to Toyota trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, fighters are well armed.
Neither side seems to be able to dominate each other as battle grounds are often not easy to reach. The south in particular suffers from a lack of good roads and as a result the situation there is likely to remain fluid for some time.
The El Sharara field - Libya’s biggest functional field - was protected by Zintan fighters allied to Thinni’s government until fighters from the Dawn - mostly drawn from the western coastal town of Misrata - arrived.
Politically the Operation Dawn forces are partly linked to Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Zintanis are part of a nationalist-leaning alliance allied to Thinni’s government and also have links to general Khalifa Haftar, an ex-Gaddafi general who is fighting Islamists in Benghazi.
“A group allied to Misrata has seized the field,” said a senior oil worker who did not want to be named.
Abdulhamid Kraaer, commander of the Zintan-led oil protection force, confirmed his men had withdrawn, acknowledging defeat, but he said more clashes could be expected.
With cell phones only working intermittently in the remote south it was hard to confirm precise details of what happened. The worker and some Libyan news websites said a third force had exploited the security vacuum, stealing equipment and vehicles from the field.
State National Oil Corp, whose headquarters are in Tripoli controlled by the new rival government, said it wanted to restart the field by Wednesday - eager to show the world and oil companies that the situation was under control.
But one El Sharara worker contacted by Reuters said he and his colleagues were staying home: “Workers will only come back when it is safe.”
additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami in Tunis; Editing by Sophie Walker