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Exclusive: Qadhafi regime bids to sell shipping fleet

Libya’s state-owned shipping firm is asking two Asian companies to take control of its fleet as the regime steps up efforts to secure cash to sustain its war effort

The move would transfer title of some or all of General National Maritime Transport’s (GNMTC) fleet to the companies, which are based in Hong Kong and Singapore, said a source close to the negotiations.

Money raised from the title transfer would be channelled to GNMTC through offshore accounts, said the source. GNMTC’s website lists 15 vessels in its fleet, although the number is thought to be 22.

Many of the vessels are said to be anchored in the Mediterranean as sanctions targeting regime-controlled ports in Libya crimp GNMTC’s ability to trade.

GNMTC is under the control of Hannibal Qadhafi, son of Libya’s leader Muammar. Hannibal is “desperate to have access to money”, said the source, not least to arrange the security of his family. Also pressing is GNMTC’s need for revenue to keep its fleet operating.

The source said two firms, Singapore-based Executive Ship Management (ESM) and UK-based V.Ships, which both provide ship-management services, including crew, for the bulk of GNMTC’s vessels, have not been paid in months. The sums owed to the companies are thought to be many millions of dollars.

V.Ships, which manages eight GNMTC vessels, would not comment on its relationship with the Libyan state-owned firm or other clients. ESM did not return requests for comment.

EU sanctions

Neither firm is breaking EU sanctions on Libya’s shipping trade, which ban European vessels entering six Qadhafi-regime-controlled ports, although a Western government source said it had sought to persuade companies dealing with GNMTC to stop. The banned ports are Tripoli, Al-Khoms, Zuara, Brega, Ras Lanuf and Zawiyah.

A senior official from GNMTC is understood to have sought help from the Venezuelan government to arrange the title transfer, but negotiations stalled during the illness of President Hugo Chavez, a Qadhafi ally.

The news comes as the regime taps other methods to raise cash and secure arms and fuel supplies through neighbouring Tunisia and Algeria. On 20 July, an email leaked to Petroleum Economist suggested the Farwa, a Libyan cargo vessel, was shipping weapons through Algeria to Qadhafi forces. Petroleum Economist could not confirm any details. The Farwa is now anchored offshore Djen, a port in Algeria, according to AIS, a marine-traffic data service. Nato did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

A source also said arrangements were under way to ship crude oil still held in storage tanks in regime-controlled Mellitah and Ras Lanuf, on the north coast of Libya, to As-Suhayrah, a port in Tunisia. The shipments would follow the coastline to avoid sailing through international waters, which may bring an interdiction from Nato ships patrolling the area.

The source said the crude would be refined in Tunisia’s 30,000 barrels a day (b/d) Bizerte refinery, in the north of the country, and re-imported into Libya.

Fuel shortages

Nato’s interdiction of seaborne fuel supplies to the regime, tighter control of overland traffic crossing the Tunisia-Libya border and the rebels’ success in shutting down an oil pipeline to the Zawiyah refinery, west of Tripoli, have caused severe fuel shortages in Qadhafi-controlled areas.

The regime, said a source, still has 3.0 million to 3.5 million barrels of crude oil in storage, although it has been unable to refine any of it, or sell it on the open market.

Fuel supplies continue to arrive from Algeria through a border crossing close to the southwest town of Ghadames. These truck supplies head east before going north to the garrison town of Gharyan; and from there to Tripoli.

But bouyed by their success this week in Brega, an oil-export hub on the north coast that the UK government claims is now rebel hands, rebels in the west are now fighting close to Gharyan. Its fall would leave Tripoli isolated.

Meanwhile, the rebels’ capture of Brega may also now speed oil production and exports from the rebel-held east.

A source in Libya’s oil industry confirmed again to Petroleum Economist that Arabian Gulf Oil (Agoco), the rebel-held unit of state-owned National Oil Company, was ready to begin pumping oil from the Sarir and Misla fields, in the southeast.

Output will not begin until rebel troops arrive to protect the area, which, although clear of Qadhafi forces, remains vulnerable. However, Brega’s capture may now release fighters to protect the oil installations.

The fields were damaged in April and June when Qadhafi forces launched rocket attacks on surface facilities.

Last week, Agoco denied Petroleum Economist’s report that output was imminent. The company has been reluctant to reveal its production schedule at Sarir and Misla for fear of another attack. Agoco could not be reached for comment. But Western intelligence sources also confirmed that the fields had been fixed, with production due “at the end of the week”.

Output would reach around 180,000 b/d in the short term, which could yield the rebels’ Transitional National Council export revenue of around $2 million a day. The fields’ pre-war output was around 350,000 b/d.

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