MARJ, Libya (Reuters) - East Libyan military forces are in talks with protesting state guards to take over the nation’s largest oilfield El Sharara peacefully and pass it to the state oil firm, a commander said on Monday.
The comments by Abdel-Razeq Nathouri, chief of staff of the Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Khalifa Haftar, may soothe fears of a battle for the 315,000 barrels-per-day field.
Libya has been in turmoil since the NATO-backed toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, with rival administrations and armed groups controlling different territories.
The LNA began an offensive in the south last month to fight Islamist militants, Chadian opposition forces and cross-border smugglers, as well as to secure oil installations.
It reached a remote pumping station, but has not moved on the main El Sharara field which a rival force of state guards seized in December demanding money. Production stopped then.
“We are now in talks with the guards. In the end, Libyans mustn’t fight each other,” Nathouri, who is Haftar’s No. 2, told Reuters at his office in the city of Marj in the Green Mountains, a 90-minute drive from main eastern city of Benghazi.
He did not give details of financial negotiations with the state guards holding El Sharara, though he said their demands on salary payments and uniforms were rightful and would be met.
Reuters was unable to immediately confirm the negotiations with the group at El Sharara. Tensions there and at the nearby 70,000 bpd El Feel field have risen in past days after the LNA banned flights without its permission.
Nathouri said his forces would hand El Sharara over to the Tripoli-based National Oil Company (NOC) once it had control, as it did with oil ports in the centre of Libya last year after expelling an armed group holding them.
Players in east Libya have tried to bypass Tripoli, where an internationally-recognised government sits, and export oil direct, but the United Nations has prohibited that, deterring potential buyers.
To keep oil flowing, Libya’s only source of income apart from gas exports, the east has accepted to route oil exports through decade-long established channels via NOC Tripoli.
On Saturday, the LNA carried out four air strikes near the El Feel oilfield, run by NOC, after a plane landed there, a field engineer said. It intercepted the plane after takeoff the next day to search it.
The Tripoli government, which opposes a rival Benghazi administration backing the LNA, said the planes were evacuating wounded from a previous battle, as well as oil workers.
But Nathouri said in reality the plane had transported a commander from the capital, Ali Kennah, to lead forces in the south. Kennah, however, was no threat as he had been unable to muster a force, he said.
The LNA had no intentions to move on El Feel as the field was operating without security issues, Nathouri said.
“We don’t move on oilfields which are working normally and are under control by NOC. We only move on sites under threat of external forces,” he said.
Libya used to pump up to 1.6 million bpd under Gaddafi’s rule, but that plunged to as low as 90,000 in 2013 due to strife and blockades at fields. Now, with El Sharara paralysed, NOC produces around 1 million bpd, industry sources say.
Reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne