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Fight over oil puts Libya on path to partition

by Chris Stephen

The Observer

No one paid much attention to the 21,000-ton oil tanker Morning Glory as it churned back and forth along the north African coast earlier this month. Tankers are a common sight, carrying Libya’s oil exports around the world. But on March 1 it switched off its satellite transponder and vanished from world shipping maps.

Eight days later it appeared at Libya’s biggest oil port, Es Sider, blockaded since the summer by a rebel militia. Within a week, its arrival would see a prime minister sacked and Libya on the brink of civil war.

Nearly 640 km (400 miles) away in the capital, Tripoli, Prime Minister Ali Zidan, 63, a lawyer and former dissident based in Geneva, was alarmed. He had come to the job 15 months before with high expectations. Libya, freed with NATO help from the dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi in its bloody Arab Spring revolution, had everything going for it, holding Africa’s largest oil reserves and having only 6 million people to share the wealth among.

Instead, he had endured a bruising ride. Forty years of brutal, idiosyncratic dictatorship had left the country on its knees. Schools, hospitals, roads, pensions, commerce, the courts and police needed an urgent overhaul and he lacked the trained civil servants to do it.

Worse, he was at loggerheads with the Islamist-led congress that appointed him. When a militia briefly kidnapped him for six hours in October, he emerged to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Justice and Construction Party leads the Islamist coalition, of “undermining” him. Since then, Islamists and a growing body of allies had campaigned to sack him, blaming Zidan for Libya’s woes.

Worse still, the militias that had won the revolution were now fighting each other in a bewildering array of shifting alliances, deepening an economic malaise and scaring off foreign investors.

But the arrival of the Morning Glory was more serious still. Oil and gas account for 95 percent of government revenues, and most Libyans depend on that government for salaries or handouts. Since the summer, militias in the east and west of the country had blockaded oil ports and fields, demanding more oil cash for the regions and slashing production. That had been bad enough. The prospect of the eastern rebels actually selling the oil promised disaster. Normally taciturn and professorial, Zidan threatened to attack the tanker if it tried to leave.

In Es Sider, Ibrahim Jathran, 33, leader of the rebels, was unperturbed, greeting the Morning Glory’s arrival with celebrations that included slaughtering a camel on the quayside. Charismatic and tough, he made his name leading a militia in the revolution and was later appointed head of the army’s oil protection force in eastern Libya. Last year he set up the Cyrenaica Political Bureau, named after the eastern province that contains two-thirds of the country’s oil, and seized key oil terminals. Many Cyrenaicans were ambivalent, agreeing that the east needed more state help, but unsure this unelected body was the way to get it. Opponents accuse Jathran of planning a breakaway state, something his supporters deny.

“All of this is against the Muslim Brotherhood, not against ordinary Tripolitanians,” said Jathran’s spokesman, Essam Jimani. “We don’t want independence. But if the Muslim Brotherhood are too powerful and it led to civil war, we would be forced to become an independent state.”

The arrival of the Morning Glory also rang alarm bells in the West. Libya was already a worry, with the growing presence of Islamist radicals and waves of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa using it as a springboard for Europe. NATO was the midwife for Libya’s Arab Spring revolution, its bombing devastating Gadhafi’s forces, and a descent into anarchy would affect the reputations of U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, key movers in that war.

Now a new reason was emerging for keeping Libya stable; its gas, piped to Italy, was a valuable alternative source of energy to a European Union dependent on supplies from an ever more erratic Russia. Western diplomats liked Zidan: some conceded he lacked charisma, but they saw in him a liberal mediating force between Libya’s factions. And London, Paris and Washington agreed that congress, whatever its complexion, should be supported as the vital underpinning of Libyan democracy.

While Morning Glory was taking on oil, U.S. Ambassador Deborah Jones declared that Jathran’s actions amounted to “theft from the Libyan people.”

On March 10, unperturbed by threats against it, the tanker, loaded with a cargo valued at $33 million, slipped her moorings and a new factor entered the equation: the weather. Howling winds, driving rain and heavy seas met the Morning Glory as she put to sea. Zidan ordered the armed forces to intercept the ship, only to find the cupboard almost bare.

Libya’s few major warships were upside down in Tripoli harbor, the result of NATO bombing in the revolution. Its air force was in near mutiny over changes to its command, with three air bases in open revolt, and no bombers took to the air. Instead Zidan turned to the Libya Shield, a loose alliance of revolutionary militias. A unit in Misrata, 450 km (280 miles) up the coast, commandeered a tugboat, lashed jeeps mounted with rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns to the decks, and set sail.

The tug caught up with the Morning Glory in storm-lashed seas, a TV crew on board filming the dramatic firing of grad rockets, to the whoops and cheers of the crew, aimed at the tanker.

Several can be seen splashing into the sea, but at least one appears to hit its target, a puff of black smoke erupting from the white bridge. The footage then captured a remarkable conversation, in English, between the two captains:

Morning Glory: “Don’t fire, don’t fire. We have security on board we cannot do anything.”

Gunboat captain: “We are not firing. Could you change the course to Misrata, please. Have you taken your map to see Misrata port, please?”

Morning Glory: “I cannot do anything, the security on the bridge, the security on the bridge, with the guns. Security on the bridge with the guns, they cannot let me do anything, please don’t fire, please don’t fire.”

The exchange seemed to validate government claims that gunmen were holding the Morning Glory crew hostage, but the tanker outpaced the tug, which later encountered a patrolling U.S. warship. Jathran had won.

In Tripoli, the rebel triumph was the last straw for the congress, which sacked Zidan, replacing him with former Defense Minister Abdullah al-Thani. Hours later, prosecutors charged Zidan with corruption and issued a travel ban.

The stage was set for a dramatic escape. At 9 p.m. a private jet landed at Tripoli international airport, the pilot telling the control tower he was picking up diplomats. The plane parked on the VIP apron, but when a passport official turned up to check the passengers he was restrained by security guards while Zidan got on the plane. It took off and headed for Germany, where Zidan insisted he was innocent of corruption and denounced his sacking as a “falsification,” claiming only 113 members voted to sack him, less than the minimum 120 required. He promised to return one day to Libya, but that may be some way off.

Congress, insisting its dismissal was lawful, decided on bold action. Misratan-led Libya Shield units, the most powerful in the country, raced east down the coastal highway to capture the rebel-held ports, running into a unit, not of rebels, but of army special forces at the coastal town of Sirte.

In confused fighting, five soldiers were killed, four incinerated when their vehicle was hit. Photographs of their badly burned bodies being returned to Cyrenaica spread across social media, inflaming public anger. A mixed force of Jathran’s rebels, Cyrenaican militias and army units complete with howitzers was deployed at the Red Wadi, a valley blocking approaches to the ports.

Trouble then spread across the country. In the western mountains abutting the Tunisian border, the Zintan militia, allies of Zidan, denounced his sacking and mobilized. The Zintan militia is second only to the pro-congress Misrata militia in strength, and both are more powerful than Libya’s tiny regular army.

Zintani and Misratan militia units have frequently clashed in Tripoli, vying for control of key bases. Zintan also lies along the gas and oil pipelines carrying oil from western Libya to the coast. In concert with ethnic Berbers to the north and Tobu tribesmen to the south it has periodically cut pipelines and occupied oil fields. Were it to side with Jathran’s forces in the east, it would leave central government facing an almost total oil blockade, and the prospect of resistance on two fronts.

Adding to the confusion, leaders in the southern province of Fezzan met to consider breaking away from government control, while in Tripoli a militia stormed, looted and burned the headquarters of the second infantry brigade. On March 13, congress Speaker Nuri Abu Sahmain intervened, giving rebels two weeks to vacate the oil terminals in a bid to bring calm. Tribal elders from east and west met, hoping to find breathing room.

But that space is limited. The Islamists in Congress have strengthened their hand by sacking Zidan, but at the risk of polarizing the opposition. Congress is itself denounced by many for staying in office after its mandate expired last month, despite MPs arguing that Libya must have a parliament until fresh elections are held this summer. Many think a breakup is now a possibility.

“Current conditions seem heavily stacked against a political solution,” said Oliver Coleman, an analyst with British risk consultants Maplecroft. “There is an absence of any genuinely unifying figure to act as a bridge between Libya’s factions. An Islamist- dominated Congress will find it extremely difficult to reach a negotiated settlement with Jathran, given his renowned animosity to the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Jathran’s rebels have vowed to hold the Red Wadi, in what some see as a de facto partition of Libya.

Among those seeking dialogue is Hassan El Amin, a Misratan former dissident who quit congress and fled back to Britain in 2012, saying he had received death threats. He is now calling for the U.N. to mediate.

“The West should realize the issue in Libya can get really out of hand, they don’t want another Syria. When we were fighting Gadhafi they [the West] came in together. We need them again.”