A Fierce Air War Over Libya’s Oil Fields Has Killed Innocent Civilians
Someone bombed the Hell out of Al Jufrah
by ARNAUD DELALANDE
On Sept. 20, 2016, unidentified aircraft struck a park at Nina Agricultural Project in Sokna, part of the Al Jufrah district 125 miles south of Sirte in Libya. The bombing killed at least seven people and injured as many as 20 others.
The two main government factions — the Libyan National Army and militia forces affiliated with the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord — both denied involvement … and accused each other of orchestrating the strike.
So who bombed Al Jufrah?
Col. Ahmed Al Mismari, an LNA spokesman, pinned the attack on aircraft belonging to the Libya Dawn Air Force. Mismari claimed the Libya Dawn planes attempted to target the LNA’s 12th Brigade, led by Col. Mohamed Bin Nile. The colonel’s forces had carried out a reconnaissance mission in the vicinity of the Nina Agricultural Project the day before the bombing.
Lt. Col. Mohamed Ganunu, the GNA spokesman at the Misrata air base, denied these accusations. Ganunu said that the GNA/AF performed only six sorties on Sept. 19 and 20, all targeting Islamic States snipers and militants attempting to escape the city of Sirte.
Sources in Tripoli claimed that aircraft based at Ras Lanuf airstrip — seized by the LNA in mid-September — carried out the Al Jufrah attack. According to these sources, the fighter-bombers were targeting Jadhran Ibrahim, the commander of the Petroleum Facilities Guard militia. Ibrahim had supposedly sought refuge in the area.
After the Petroleum Facilities Guard sided with the GNA, on Sept. 11, 2016, LNA forces launched an offensive to capture all the oil terminals within Libya’s so-called Oil Crescent. Two days later, the LNA captured Ras Lanuf together with the local airport — the runway of had previously hosted the LNA Air Force back in January 2015, at a time when the LNA and Libya Dawn were fighting each other over Libya’s oil ports.
At that time, two of the LNA/AF’s MiG-21s and one Agusta A109 helicopter had deployed to the Ras Lanuf airport. When the LNA/AF returned to the airport in September 2016, it sent at least two MiG-21s, one Mi-35 attack helicopter and a Mi-8T transport helicopter to operate from the facility.
On Sept. 18, 2016, the Saraya Defend Benghazi local militia launched a nighttime counterattack in attempt to recover the Sidra oil terminal. The LNA hit back in force. The LNA/AF’s MiG-23BNs, MiG-23MLs, MiG-21s and Mi-35s forced the SDB to withdraw back to Bin Jawad.
Operating from Ras Lanuf, the warplanes and helicopters were able to fly repeated air strikes, each lasting mere minutes owing to the short distances involved. The small airport thus proved of strategic importance. From it, the LNA can control most of the Oil Crescent.
In addition to flying combat operations from Ras Lanuf, the LNA/AF also runs a sort of a miniature air bridge to the airport with its Mi-8T helicopters. One of these crashed in Mechili, around 120 kilometers west of Tobruk, on Sept. 19, 2016, killing three crew and three passengers.
A week later on Sept. 27, 2016, the first civilian aircraft carrying oil workers landed at Ras Lanuf, as well.
Meanwhile on Sept. 18, 2016, the LNA announceded it had captured Al Jufrah air base, previously used by the GNA to target LNA forces near Zillah. Sokna, where the seven civilians died in a bombing only two days later, is located only 20 kilometers south of this air base.
The GNA is determined to prevent the LNA from making use of Al Jufrah. Should the LNA/AF deploy its fighter-bombers there, it would be able to block all access to the oil fields of eastern Libya to the forces loyal to the internationally-recognized GNA in Tripoli.
This is why GNA fighter-bombers performed several air strikes from Misrata air base against Al Jufrah on Sept. 20, 2016. Therefore, it’s likely that the GNA struck Sokna and killed those civilians.
Both the GNA and Saraya Defend Benghazi want to retake the oil fields from the LNA. On Sept. 24, 2016, Saraya Defend Benghazi fighters reportedly entered the Mabruk oil field, despite coming under air attack by the LNA/AF. This oil field is not operational and cannot currently be exploited, but it is close to the Zillah and Marada basins that contain 14 oil fields currently held by the LNA.
Still, the LNA is in an advantageous position. Not only are the LNA/AF’s main bases secure from takeover, but local militias in the oil region—the Petroleum Facilities Guard and the Saraya Defend Benghazi group— are putting up relatively little resistance.
The fact is that with most of the Oil Crescent under its control, the LNA effectively commands more than half of Libya’s oil. The GNA is not happy about that. And in lashing out at the LNA, the GNA apparently has hit innocent civilians.