Rival Powers Claim Command of City Near Libya's Biggest Oilfield

(Bloomberg) -- Libya’s internationally backed government tapped a rival to eastern leader Khalifa Haftar to command a strategic city his army controls, the latest salvo in their struggle for power in the war-ravaged North African nation.

The Presidency Council announced the appointment of Ali Kana, a member of the Tuareg tribe, as military chief in the southwestern city of Sebha on its Facebook page on Wednesday. Haftar’s Libyan National Army, the country’s largest and strongest organized military force, seized Sebha after launching a broad offensive in the southwest last month aimed at rooting out Islamists and securing vital oil installations.

The city is about 125 miles (200 kilometers) west of Sharara, a 300,000 barrel-per-day oil field that is Libya’s largest. The LNA already controls major oil export terminals and fields in the east. The push to the south has raised worries of an even more aggressive attempt get a stranglehold on the oil sector in the nation that sits atop Africa’s largest proven reserves of crude.

Kana’s appointment came just hours after Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s Tripoli-based government demanded that Haftar halt airstrikes in the area. Shortly after that demand was issued, Libya media reported that Petroleum Facilities Guard forces loyal to Tripoli were dispatched to secure Sharara. The field, a joint venture between Libya’s National Oil Corp., Repsol SA, Total SA, OMV AG and Equinor ASA, has stopped producing since protesters seized it in December.

Kana’s appointment, shows that al-Sarraj’s government “reacts to developments, as they occur,” said Claudia Gazzini, International Crisis Group’s senior Libya analyst. “One could read into this appointment that Sarraj is more decisively reining in the LNA.”

The move, however, has the potential to backfire by injecting new tensions into Libya’s seething political landscape.

Clashes between rival militias, as well as political jockeying by parallel governments in the east and west, have stunted the country’s efforts to revive oil output following the 2011 uprising that ousted Muammar Qaddafi. The country has repeatedly seen oil installations and fields targeted and used as leverage in the power struggle.

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