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Libya rebels warn oil port bid will result in extreme anarchy

The rebel group that controls three of Libya’s biggest oil ports has rejected a pledge by Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan to reopen the terminals on 15 December

They are warning that any attempt to reopen the terminals by force could lead to violent clashes that would further destabilise the country and dash hopes that Libya could rapidly increase in crude exports in the near future.

Speaking from the rebel group’s headquarters in the eastern oil town of Ajdabiya, its spokesman, Osama Buera, said that the government had so far failed to comply with the group’s demands and accused officials of adding to instability by creating the impression that the ports would reopen. “There are conditions for the terminals to reopen and the conditions have not been met,” he said.

“The government has ignored this during its press conferences and this will make things worse on [15 December].”

Zeidan set the stage for a showdown during a speech delivered on 11 December, in which he pledged that the ports would reopen the weekend of 14 December.

Markets reacted quickly to the news. Brent oil futures tumbled by more than $1 on 12 December as traders anticipated an increase in Libyan oil supply.

However, Buera stated that his group is willing to use force if necessary to keep them closed, adding that if government troops are used to try to take back the terminals, it could spark a descent into “extreme anarchy”.

The rebels took control of Ras Lanuf, Es-Sider and Zueitina in July and August this year and have fiercely resisted government attempts to take them back, demanding autonomy for Libya’s oil-rich eastern region called Cyrenaica. They are also calling for a federal system of government, more transparency in oil deals and an even distribution of the country’s oil wealth.

Since taking control of the ports, the rebel autonomy movement has become increasingly entrenched and much better organised. Over recent months, it has gained the backing of powerful tribes as well as unveiling its own army and a regional government.

The closure of the ports has put the country under enormous financial pressure, slashing Libya’s oil exports to less than half of their post-revolutionary high and costing the central government billions of dollars in lost revenue.

Libya relies on oil for more than 90% of government revenue and speaking in November Zeidan said the disruption at the ports had plunged the country into a “financial crisis”.

He also said he wasn’t afraid of using force to reopen the ports if the protesters did not back down, stating: “I do not accept violence easily, but the government will respond with necessary actions to protect the resources of the state.”

Zeidan signalled that a deal between the rebels and the government ahead of 15 December  was unlikely. He said the government did not recognise the rebels as a legitimate political entity and has discontinued negotiations with the group’s leader Ibrihim Jathran, a former revolutionary.

Zeidan also said that it would be possible to reopen the ports without rebel consent because of support from a number of tribal leaders. This claim has been dismissed by the rebels, who say they remain in full control of the ports and maintain that the most powerful tribes in Cyrenaica remain loyal to their campaign.

The heightened tensions between the government and the rebels comes after a number of recent gains against renegade armed groups and amid widespread public anger about Libya’s multitude of out-of-control militias, many of which claim they are acting in the good of the country while using their military might to furthering their own ambitions.

In November, newly trained government forces swept into Tripoli, successfully ejecting a number of militias from the city. The operation came after a militia opened fire on a peaceful protest, killing 47 and sparked nation-wide protests against militias.

Energy Aspects geopolitical analyst Richard Mallinson says that the government could well be trying to ride the wave of public anger at militia groups, but warns that a showdown may result in even less security in Libya’s troubled east. “For months now, the conflict between the government and the rebels has been a stalemate but that could very well change on Sunday. If there is an attempt to reopen the terminals by force it could have major repercussions in terms of Libya’s stability,” he said.

Bombings and political assassinations occur daily in Libya’s eastern region, and there is a growing animosity between radical Islamic militant groups like Ansar al-Sharia and the increasingly powerful federalist rebels.

The rebels themselves accuse the government of forcing them towards armed conflict. Osama Buera says the Prime Minister’s refusal to engage in a serious debate about government corruption and regional autonomy means the radical elements of Libya’s federalist movement are becoming more vocal. “These elements of the federalist movement want full independence for the east and they’re willing to use force to get it,” he said. 

He added: “Cyrenaica will ultimately become an autonomous region sooner or later. We’ve made it clear that we are working on a peaceful transition but increasingly the government is pushing us towards violence.”

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