Huge depot blaze puts Tripoli under threat, oil production drops

Spread of the blaze could cause potential "humanitarian and environmental catastrophe".

THE Libyan government is appealing for international help after a tank containing six million litres of fuel was set ablaze by rocket fire in Tripoli late on Sunday. State-owned National Oil Corp has warned of a potential “humanitarian and environmental catastrophe”. 

Libya was expected to call in firefighting planes Monday to douse the huge blaze which was sparked by clashes near Tripoli’s airport. 

Oil production drop

Libya was once one of the top oil producers in North Africa, however exports and production have faltered since the fall of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Early in 2013, Libya was producing at least 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, however that fell dramatically to around 450,000 barrels per day on Monday. 

In April, a negotiated deal practically ended the year-long blockade by a former rebel commander over four key oil ports, allowing Libya to slowly rebuild production and earning vital oil revenue. But those gains have now been been eroded by increasing attacks and violence. 

“If the situation in Libya worsens and leads to significant oil outages or low exports, then we could see oil prices rising once again,” said Abhishek Deshpande, analyst at French corporate and investment bank, Natixis. 

Officials said firefighters on the ground had failed to put out the oil tank blaze near Tripoli airport and that an air intervention was the only option to avert a catastrophe. The plant has continued to burn steadily and the authorities fear the blaze could spread to a natural gas reservoir in the same plant where 90 million litres are stored. Residents have been urged to evacuate areas within 5km of the blaze on the airport road. 

“Firefighters have been trying for hours to put out the blaze but to no avail. Their water reserves finally ran out and they’ve had to leave,” said NOC spokesman Mohamed al-Hrari.

The Tripoli clashes, the most violent since a 2011 armed revolt that overthrew longtime dictator Gaddafi, started with a July 13 assault on the airport by armed groups, mainly Islamists.

Fighting was still raging early on Monday, with explosions heard from central Tripoli. The attackers are battling to flush out fellow former rebels from the hill town of Zintan, southwest of Tripoli, who have controlled the airport for the past three years.

Fighting over the weekend between army special forces and Islamists in Benghazi killed 28 people, mostly soldiers, military and medical officials said. The health ministry said Sunday that the violence which has kept the airport closed for more than two weeks had killed 97 people and left more than 400 others injured.

Foreigners urged to quit

Egypt and several Western states urged their nationals to leave Libya amid the spiralling violence which has also hit the eastern city of Benghazi, birthplace of the 2011 revolution. Washington evacuated its embassy staff on Saturday, with Secretary of State John Kerry warning the mission had faced a “real risk” from the fighting for control of Tripoli airport.

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