By Ayman al-Warfalli and Aidan Lewis
BENGHAZI, Libya/TUNIS (Reuters) - Eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar's forces have handed control of oil ports to a National Oil Corporation (NOC) based in the east, a spokesman said on Monday, a move the internationally recognised NOC in Tripoli dismissed as illegal.
If implemented, the transfer of control would create uncertainty for buyers of Libyan oil who normally go through NOC Tripoli. It could also deepen the split between east and west Libya, which have been home to rival governments since 2014.
In comments later confirmed to Reuters, Ahmed Mismari, spokesman of Haftar's Libya National Army (LNA), said on television that no tanker would be allowed to dock at eastern ports without permission from an NOC entity based in the main eastern city, Benghazi.
Mismari said the move was to prevent oil revenues being used to fund militias such as "Chadian mercenaries", and because of a lack of recognition from the chairman of NOC Tripoli, Mustafa Sanalla, for the "sacrifices" of LNA troops guarding the ports.
Armed forces allied to Ibrahim Jathran, a faction leader, briefly seized the Es Sider and Ras Lanuf oil ports this month until the LNA expelled his troops last week. The LNA says fighters from Chad helped Jathran.
Mismari said 184 LNA soldiers had been killed and dozens of others wounded in five attacks on the ports, which have been repeatedly fought over by rival factions.
When asked how oil exports would be sold in the future via the east, he referred questions to NOC in Benghazi, which is not recognised abroad. Faraj Said, head of the Benghazi NOC, said his office was planning to issue instructions to oil companies to start work.
"We are legitimate," Said told Reuters. "Whoever wants to do business with us is welcome."
NOC Tripoli said in a statement that the LNA had "decided to put itself above the law", and any attempts by parallel institutions to export oil were illegal and would fail as they had failed in the past.
"NOC warns companies against entering into contracts to buy oil from parallel institutions," it said. "They will not be honoured and NOC will pursue legal action against them by all options available."
Haftar's forces control most of eastern Libya, home to a largely powerless parallel government, central bank and NOC entity opposing the U.N.-backed administration in the capital, Tripoli. Eastern factions have long accused the central bank in Tripoli of misspending oil revenues and allocating insufficient funds to the east.
A spokesman for the eastern government said its prime minister and central bank had met on Monday to discuss how to start managing oil revenues.
The eastern government tried in 2015 to sell oil bypassing NOC Tripoli, but did not find buyers, banks or insurers willing to take the legal risk. Western powers and U.N. Security Council resolutions have protected NOC Tripoli as the sole body that can market and sell Libyan oil.
The fate of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, two of Libya's largest ports, is crucial to the fragile recovery of the country's oil industry. Their closure has led to production losses of up to 450,000 barrels per day from a total national output of a little over 1 million bpd.
The Hariga port in Tobruk near the Egyptian border as well as the Brega and Zueitina terminals southwest of Benghazi are also under Haftar's control.
In 2013, Jathran seized and blockaded several eastern oil ports. In March 2014, U.S. Navy SEALS seized a tanker that had loaded crude from one of the ports, and in 2016, Jathran lost control to the LNA. The LNA handed the terminals to NOC Tripoli, allowing Libya's production and exports to rise sharply.
(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli and Aidan Lewis; Writing by Ulf Laessing and Aidan Lewis; Editing by Peter Graff and Peter Cooney)
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Updated Date: Jun 26, 2018 07:05:57 IST