Libya’s Guard Takes Oil Field Stormed by Islamist Gunmen

Libya’s Petroleum Facilities Guard restored control over an idled oil field captured on Tuesday by Islamist gunmen who were said to be seeking a source of funds in the politically divided North African country.

The assailants took three Philippine workers as hostages in their retreat from al-Mabruk oil field, Ali al-Hasy, a spokesman for the guard, said by phone on Thursday. Of the 15 guards deployed at the site when it came under attack on Feb 3., two survived and 13 are missing, he said.

The field, operated by Total SA as part of a joint venture with Libya’s state-run National Oil Corp., stopped pumping crude on Dec. 15 after an Islamist attack shut Es Sider, the country’s largest oil port and the export terminal for al-Mabruk. Libya’s oil production dropped to 300,000 barrels a day last month from a peak in 2013 of 1.4 million barrels, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The Philippine hostages don’t work for Total, al-Hasy said. The Paris-based energy company said Wednesday the hostages were neither French nor its employees. All National Oil employees at the field made it to safety, the company said in a statement, making no mention of hostages.

Al-Hasy said the assailants are affiliated with Islamic State, the group based in Syria and Iraq that claimed responsibility for burning alive a Jordanian pilot.

National Oil’s spokesman, Mohamed Elharari, confirmed that gunmen stormed the field Tuesday, without identifying them.

Split Libya

Libya, which holds Africa’s largest oil reserves, has been split since last summer between the internationally recognized government of Abdullah al-Thinni, who controls the Petroleum Facilities Guard, and the administration of Omar al-Hassi, who has the backing of Islamist militias that seized the capital Tripoli in July. Al-Hassi’s Oil Minister Mashallah Zwai said his administration was not responsible for the attack.

“We were surprised, we condemn this attack,” Zwai said from Tripoli Thursday. Libya is now producing 350,000 to 400,000 barrels of oil a day, he said.

The gunmen who captured the oil field were seeking an independent source of funds, said Mahmoud Jibril, leader of one of the nation’s biggest political parties represented in the parliament backing Thinni.

“The same happened in Iraq and Syria,” Jibril, the leader of the National Forces Alliance, said Wednesday by phone from Cairo. “This situation is also the result of the abandonment of Libya by the international community.”

Authorities declared force majeure in December at Es Sider and the neighboring Ras Lanuf export terminal. Force majeure is a legal step that protects a company from liability when it can’t fulfill a contract for reasons beyond its control.

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