Geopolitics

Are NATO Attacks In Libya All About The Oil?

In a view from the ground in Brega, signs of bombing campaigns carried out with oil production in mind. Gaddafi loyalists say NATO attacks kills civilians, spares the oil in a dirty war.

Jean-Philippe Rémy

BREGA, Libya - Invisible to the eye, an airplane buzzes through the sky above the oil complex at Brega. One, and then two deafening explosions resound.

It's not clear whether they are part of a new NATO strike nearby or shots fired by Libyan loyalists or rebels. Either way, a hint of anxiety is felt in front of the cracking towers of the small refinery situated in the Gulf of Syrte oil port, 800 kilometers from Tripoli.

For several days now, coalition air strikes have been targeting the Sirte Oil Company complex and its surroundings, just on the outer edges of the several-kilometer-long frontline of the Libyan conflict. But the interim director of the complex, Abderrahmane Mufta, insists the oil itself is safe. "We're safe right here," he tells a group of journalists visiting the plant under Libyan government supervision. "NATO will never destroy the oil installations."

Mufta's theory seemed to hold true during a June 24 strike that targeted what seemed to be buildings reserved for staff. While NATO bombers destroyed certain parts of the large industrial park – specifically living and eating quarters – they were careful to spare the oil tanks, the terminal, the beginning of the large Libyan pipeline, and the petrochemical complex, which has been shut down since the Norwegian expatriates who ran the facility fled the country.

Did another blunder just take place? Powerful bombs struck an employee dining facility, along with six worker residences. For the past three days those workers who are still left in the Brega complex have had nowhere to eat. Desolation reigns. Marouf Ahmed Embara, standing on the rubble of a destroyed house, mourns "a family of friends:" six people killed, he says, by a bomb. According to Libyan authorities, Friday's coalition attacks killed 15 in the complex.

The large dining facility was empty at the time of the air strike, which occurred at approximately 1 a.m. Next to it, a second building was even more radically destroyed. "Before the crisis, that was where we used to go to relax, or to connect to the Internet," says one employee.

Since the beginning of the conflict in February, the Libyan revolt has morphed into a civil war. In oil industry facilities like the Brega complex, the European expatriates have fled. Only the more low-level foreign employees, people from places like Bangladesh, have stuck around.

The fog of the frontline

The reduced teams are running the complex at 20% capacity, according to Abderrahmane Mufta. In Brega there are now approximately 1,000 workers, as opposed to 6,800 before the war. "Salaries are frozen, but we remain," says Jamal, an employee, in a quiet voice. "It needs to continue running, it is very important. Believe me! For pity's sake believe me: there are only employees here and no soldiers. We do not know where they are…"

In this part of the frontline, nothing is ever clear. There remains a container of arms in front of the entrance of the lodging for distinguished visitors, a camouflaged vehicle hiding in the garage of the complex's hospital, and a bulletproof vest abandoned next to the pipeline's compressor.

Nearby, the fighting rages on. In the past three months, the region has changed hands more than four times. Even the adjacent airport was the scene of clashes in March, and it was recently struck in May by NATO bombs so powerful that a piece of the cabin from a jet was launched onto the roof of a hangar.

The needs of the rebel forces of the National Transition Counsel are great. They have retreated back to Ajdabiya in order to re-launch an assault on Brega, even if only to deprive the loyalist forces of a precious source of fuel.

"It is the smallest refinery in Libya! It is a dirty war that NATO is waging, a war for oil," says Am'Ahmed Senussi, a young engineer who had to interrupt his doctoral studies at the University of Birmingham in Great Britain so he could fill in for the departed expatriates.

The refinery dates back to 1961. It only produces about 9,000 barrels per day (as opposed to 100,000 barrels before the war), but it nevertheless provides a vital source of fuel.

Besides its oil complex, Brega barely exists any more. The city has but one negligible intersection along the flat and dusty coastal route that crosses Libya. However, Muammar Gaddafi's camp has lost a majority of the petroleum zones and thus its refinery capacity, and so Brega is essential if they want to maintain the eastern front.

It is in this zone that NATO is multiplying its attacks in order to open the way for the rebels of the National Transition Counsel. Nearby, a large telecommunications antenna was destroyed by strikes on June 24.

The injured are sent to the hospital located within the oil complex, where one doctor confirms he received 32 people, of which 13 were serious cases, since June 24. To demonstrate the severity of the strikes, he shows the radio of one of the injured, which is now a hand-sized metallic chunk stuck in his skull.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Al Jazeera English

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