By Ayman al-Warfalli
RAS LANUF, Libya (Reuters) – A broken down truck and a tank lie by the side of the road in the sand, and overturned boxes are strewn across the floor of a firefighting station.
Otherwise, Libya’s coastal Oil Crescent appears much as it did before a string of battles saw the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) lose and retake the major export terminals of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider in the space of 11 days.
The fighting with the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) caused output to dip slightly, and fueled fears of fresh shutdowns in Libya’s most important oil producing region.
But workers are gradually returning to the oil facilities which officials say show little sign of damage beyond what was wrought in previous rounds of fighting.
Military checkpoints have sprung up again, and shops, mosques and petrol stations have reopened. The LNA says it is once more fully in control.
Es Sider and Ras Lanuf are two of Libya’s largest terminals. They have a potential combined capacity of some 600,000 barrels per day (bpd), but have been operating at a fraction of normal levels after being repeatedly fought over and blockaded for two years.
Reuters reporters saw a heavy military presence at Es Sider, the westernmost of the ports, during a visit on Thursday, just two days after the LNA recaptured it.
“The port has not suffered damage that would hinder exports, just some stealing,” said an engineer at Es Sider. “About 30 workers have returned to the port, though we have not started export operations yet.”
At the Harouge oil storage tank farm in Ras Lanuf, about 30 km (18 miles) east of Es Sider, a group of soldiers with five military vehicles stood guard.
“There were clashes around the tanks, they didn’t last long,” said Alaa Gaddafi, an LNA commander stationed there. “Some of them escaped and we found some dead. We got control of the tanks after about 10 minutes. There was no new damage to the tanks, the damage is from before.”
The LNA and its leader Khalifa Haftar say they are working to rid Libya of Islamist extremism and militia rule. They have gradually extended their control over most parts of eastern Libya.
The BDB is partly made up of fighters who battled the LNA in Benghazi. They draw on support from Haftar’s opponents in western Libya, and say they are fighting to prevent a return to authoritarian rule and to allow displaced families to go back to Benghazi.
The attack on the Oil Crescent by the BDB on March 3 took the LNA by surprise, exposing previous claims to have the area well secured.
Its loss of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, and the BDB’s promise to push northeast toward Benghazi, raised the prospect of an escalation in a simmering conflict between loose armed alliances based in the east and west of the country.
It also put at risk a partial revival of Libya’s oil production, throwing into doubt a fragile arrangement by which the LNA allowed the National Oil Corporation (NOC) in Tripoli to operate the ports, even whilst allowing revenues to go to a central bank that it opposes.
National output more than doubled after the LNA took control of all four of the Oil Crescent’s ports last September, allowing the NOC to reopen three of them. During this month’s clashes it dropped by about 100,000 bpd.
The LNA maintained control of Brega and Zueitina, two ports that lie to northeast of Ras Lanuf, as the BDB advanced. And after massing its forces between Brega and Ras Lanuf, and carrying out daily air strikes against its rivals, it took back both those terminals in a single day.
“They had no air cover and were in open land, they were on land they did not know, a land which to them was hostile,” said Mohamed Manfour, commander of Benghazi’s Benina air base, speaking in Brega
The BDB says it will regroup and that its campaign to reach Benghazi will continue.
The depth of local support for either side in the Oil Crescent remains unclear. Local backing is often won by offers of financial support and tribal pledges that can quickly shift. Both sides accuse the other of using mercenaries from southern Libya and sub-Saharan states across the border, and of carrying out abuses.
(Writing by Aidan Lewis Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)