Tripoli-loyal militia advance on rebel oil ports
TRIPOLI - Militia loyal to the Tripoli authorities were advancing on eastern Libya Wednesday where rebels demanding regional autonomy have begun exporting oil in defiance of the central government, both sides said.
Rebel fighters of the Cyrenaica Defence Force pulled back to the eastern region's historic border after pro-Tripoli militia of the Libya Shield Force pushed them out of the central coastal city of Sirte late Tuesday, a rebel commander said.
The commander warned that the offensive by the fighters, mostly from Libya's third city Misrata, risked plunging the North African country back into civil war.
The advancing force was "a tribal militia not a regular army unit," he said asking not to be identified.
"Our forces have pulled back to Wadi Lahmar," some 90 kilometres (60 miles) east of Sirte, he added.
The town lies on the historic border between Tripolitania and the Cyrenaica region, whose pre-1963 autonomy the rebels want restored.
The chairman of Sirte city council, Abdelfattah al-Siwi, said there had been a "brief confrontation" between the rival fighters before the rebels withdrew.
The opposing forces were allies during the NATO-backed uprising of 2011 which ended the 42-year dictatorship of Moamer Kadhafi, who made his last stand in Sirte, his home town.
But the Cyrenaican fighters' move at the weekend to load oil onto a North Korean-flagged tanker in a deal not sanctioned by the state-run National Oil Corporation prompted the Tripoli authorities to order military action.
The rebels had been blockading the main eastern oil export terminals since last July but the loading of the Morning Glory marked a major escalation of the conflict and prompted parliament to oust prime minister Ali Zeidan on Tuesday.
The speaker of the General National Congress, Nuri Abu Sahmein, who is also commander in chief, gave orders on Monday for a task force to be formed to recapture the rebel-held ports, composed of loyalist militia as well as regular troops in the absence of a big enough army unit.
The threatened assault on export terminals that constitute a key part of Libya's oil infrastructure helped push up world prices on Tuesday.
The rebels' prolonged blockade of the ports already slashed Libyan exports from 1.5 million barrels per day to just 250,000.
But major fighting in the region, which was already a major battleground in the 2011 uprising, could deal longer-term damage to the key revenue earner.