When Militants Attacked Libya’s Oil Region, Regime Aircraft Struck Back Hard

WIB front December 13, 2016 1

Two Mi-35P gunship helicopters at Ras Lanuf airstrip in October 2016. Photos via the author Libyan National Army MiGs and attack copters blasted convoys by ARNAUD...
Two Mi-35P gunship helicopters at Ras Lanuf airstrip in October 2016. Photos via the author

Libyan National Army MiGs and attack copters blasted convoys

by ARNAUD DELALANDE

On the night of Dec. 6 to 7, 2016, a convoy of around 150 vehicles left Al Jufrah in central Libya and headed toward the country’s sprawling Oil Crescent — specifically, its vital oil terminals.

The various armed technicals belonged to the Saraya Defend Benghazi — also known as Benghazi Defense Brigade — an Islamist militia group that formed in June 2016 to oppose the dominant Libyan National Army and its popular leader Gen. Khalifa Haftar. The offensive came just a day after pro-government forces liberated the Islamic State stronghold of Sirte.

Members of the Petroleum Facilities Guard — Ibrahim Jadhran’s own armed group — claimed to have joined the convoy, which split into two sections as it approached the Oil Crescent.

Not long after, many of the vehicles were wrecked and in flames.

One of the convoy’s two sections attacked Nofaliya and then Bin Jawad town, 20 miles west of As Sider, where the Libyan National Army had seized four export terminals from the Petroleum Facilities Guard, which is nominally aligned with the Government of National Accord, the LNA’s main rival.

The LNA apparently allowed the attackers to seize Nofaliya and Bin Jawad, buying time to prepare a defense-in-depth. Haftar’s main assets were his Mi-35 gunship helicopters and MiG-21 fighters, deployed to Ras Lanuf airstrip.

MiG-21bis serial 698 at Ras Lanuf airstrip in October 2016

The attackers feared the LNA’s air power. As one half of the convoy seized Nofaliya and Bin Jawad, the other half hurried to make contact with LNA ground forces, apparently in order to make it more difficult for Haftar’s helicopters and MiGs to strike from above without also endangering friendly forces.

The SDB and PFG fighters reportedly even tried to confuse the LNA by applying the insignias of the LNA’s 152nd Mechanized Infantry Brigade and 12th Infantry Brigade on their vehicles during the offensive, although this doesn’t seem to have meaningfully slowed the LNA’s counterattacks.

Vehicles from the first Saraya Defend Benghazi convoy, destroyed by Libyan National Army Air Force at Bin Jawad on Dec. 7, 2016

The LNA struck back hard. Mi-35s and MiGs launched from Ras Lanuf and Benina air base and bombed the SDB and PFG fighters in Bin Jawad for half an hour. Oil facilities guards and workers claimed the SDB fighters targeted them with Grad rockets as the air raids got underway.

The militants, who possessed no air defenses, retreated toward Harawa.

Notably, the Government of National Accord apparently did not play any part in the battle. GNA defense minister Al Mahdi Al Barghathi refused to confirm or deny that forces under his command were involved with the attacks alongside the SDB and PFG.

The Presidency Council of the GNA has denied any involvement in the military escalation in the Oil Crescent, saying the oil regions should not be conflict zones.

The day after the battle, the LNA’s main headquarters declared the area from just west of Bin Jawad to the south of Sirte all the way the cities of Hun and Al Jufra as a restricted military area, banning all movement by armed groups — and limiting the air space to LNA aircraft.

LNA planes and helicopters promptly launched what appears to be a retaliation raid in the vicinity of Al Jufrah air base, targeting SDB and pro-GNA forces. The bombing killed field commander Umar Al Mukhtar and wounded 13.

The same day, the LNA’s 21st and 101st Infantry Battalions claimed to have captured Gate 50 east of Sirte and sent reconnaissance elements farther west and south. Their objective is to re-establish a defensive perimeter a little bit forward of the Wadi Al Ahmar. A second round of air strikes targeted Jufrah air base.

Farther south in the Sebha region, Brak Al Shati air base — once under GNA control, fell to the LNA’s 12th Brigade led by Mohammed Ben Nayel. The 12th Brigade also took control of Tamanhint air base in Sebha.

It’s unlikely that the PFG-SDB coalition will have sufficient combat power in the near future to seriously challenge the LNA in Libya’s Oil Crescent without significant reinforcements from Misrata militias, which is unlikely given the current situation in Tripoli.

Its only chance is to undermine the cohesion of the LNA. But that would only work if the PFG and SDB were able to capture some of the oil terminals. As recent event have made very clear, the LNA will fight hard to protect those facilities.