TRIPOLI/GENEVA (Reuters) – Fuel deliveries in the port of Tripoli were disrupted on Tuesday when a missile almost hit a highly explosive gas carrier and the national oil company ordered all fuel tankers to leave the harbor.
A smoke rises from a port of Tripoli after being attacked in Tripoli, Libya February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Elumami
In an escalation of the battle for Tripoli, the Libya National Army (LNA), a faction based in the east of the country and commanded by Khalifa Haftar, said it attacked the port.
It said it was targeting a Turkish ship it said had been delivering arms to the internationally recognized government based in the capital. It later targeted an arms depot.
Tripoli port is a major gateway for food, fuel, wheat and other imports for the capital area, engulfed in war since the LNA began a campaign in April 2019 to take the city, where the U.N.-backed government is backed by Turkey.
State oil firm NOC said it had urgently evacuated all fuel tankers from the port after a missile struck meters away “from a highly explosive liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) tanker discharging in the port”.
“Today’s attack on Tripoli port could have led to a humanitarian and environmental disaster,” NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla said.
“The city does not have operational fuel storage facilities … the consequences will be immediate; hospitals, schools, power stations and other vital services will be disrupted,” he said.
Tripoli-based forces said the LNA had fired four missiles.
Since January, Turkey has sent several ships carrying arms and heavy trucks to Tripoli and Misrata, another western port allied to the Tripoli government, diplomats say.
The LNA is allied to a parallel government in eastern Libya supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and Russian mercenaries. Eastern ports and airports are out of range of the Tripoli forces.
Libya has been riven by factional warfare and disorder since rebels toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Tuesday’s attack on the port unfolded as officers from the Tripoli forces and the LNA held a second round of indirect talks in Geneva to establish a permanent ceasefire. Both sides refused again to sit in the same room, U.N. Libya envoy Ghassan Salame said, though he said he was hopeful of making progress.
“So while the situation on the ground remains a situation where the truce is very fragile… nobody has so far reneged on the principle of accepting the truce and the political process is trying to find a way to move forward,” he told reporters.
But, in a statement, an official in the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) cast doubt on whether Haftar was willing to negotiate.
“The people, towns, cities and civilian infrastructure of Libya continue to be attacked by Haftar, along with the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Russia,” said Mohamed Ali Abdallah, a GNA advisor. “Despite what we wanted, there is no ceasefire and he’s no partner for peace. We need real, serious action now.”
Salame added that he had received conditions from tribesmen allied to eastern forces to lift a blockade of eastern oil export ports, but said these were quite general and would have to be fleshed out in more U.N.-led talks in Geneva next week.
The port strike came as U.S. ambassador Richard Norland visited Haftar in his base near the eastern city of Benghazi.
“The Ambassador noted General #Haftar’s stated commitment to a permanent ceasefire and reiterated the commitment of the Berlin participants to de-escalation, the arms embargo, and a political solution to the conflict,” the U.S. embassy for Libya said.
It was referring to a meeting in Germany last month where foreign powers agreed to push for a ceasefire and enforce an arms embargo.
Reporting by Ahmed Elumami, Emma Farge, Ulf Laessing, Hani Amara, Ayman al-Warfalli and Hesham Abdul Khalek; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Giles Elgood