Benghazi’s main power plant was pounded by shelling for third day on Wednesday, plunging the city into darkness as the UN condemned the attacks as a “possible war crime”.
The plant – which supplies most of eastern Libya – was initially hit by missiles on Friday and Saturday, shutting down one of its units and starting a huge fire. Local military commanders claimed at the time Islamic State militants were to blame.
On Wednesday it was hit again, the plant’s media office said on its Facebook page urging citizens to use as little electricity as possible.
As a result it is only able to generate 580 megawatts of electricity instead of the usual 1060 megawatts, nearly a 50 per cent drop in power, sparking lengthy blackouts across the city.
Meanwhile the UN said it was “deeply shocked” at the shelling warning the action could amount to a war crime.
“Attacks against civilian objects and service delivery institutions are attacks against the ordinary people and prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to war crime,” said Ali al-Zatari, deputy head of the UN mission to Libya.
“The repercussions of these power failures on hospitals, community services and households are severe and expose the local population to further distress and deprivation,” he added.
Benghazi has been torn apart by 18 months of flighting between islamist fighters allied to the country’s rival administration and government forces under the leadership of divisive army chief General Khalifa Haftar.
Recently IS fighters – who are headquartered in the central city of Sirte but have cells in the east – have joined the melee, battling Haftar’s forces and further complicating the conflict.
The ongoing fighting, which continued across other parts of the city on Wednesday, has now sparked a bread crisis, residents told Libya Channel.
“There has been shelling and airstrikes today, we have very little electricity, very little petrol, now there is a massive shortage of flour to make bread – we have to fight for everything,” said Ahmed, who lives in the centre of the city.
“The city is also very crowded as we have all the displaced citizens from the neighburhoods on the front line,” he added.
Several civilians have died in the recent uptick in violence including a man and an elderly woman in one of the city’s Tawarghan internally-displaced camp, that was hit by shelling on Friday.
The main library in the centre of the city was also partially destroyed in a government airstrike, after IS militants allegedly took refuge inside the building, residents said.
Earlier last week IS militants based in Sirte attacked the country’s major oil terminals of Sidra and Ras Lanuf as they moved on the lucrative oil crescent, in search of alternative sources of funding and a means to cripple the oil-dependent Libyan authorities.
The clashes triggered massive blazes at seven of the terminals’ oil storage tanks, fires that were so huge they could be seen from space.
The last of the infernos was only put out on Friday according the Petroleum Facilities Guard, which lost 18 of its members in the fighting.
Fearing a fresh onslaught from IS and as a precaution, the country’s National Oil Corporation emptied the oil storage units at Ras Lanuf on Monday.
“We have taken all the oil stored in the tanks there (Ras Lanuf) to a safer location,” Mohamed al-Manfi, an adviser at NOC in eastern Libya, said. He estimated each of the tanks contained between 420,000 to 460,000 barrels of oil.
The eastern branch of the NOC was set up by the internationally-recognised authorities – currently anchored in Tobruk and Bayda after being forced to abandon Tripoli following Libya Dawn’s take over in the summer of 2014.
Dawn, an armed coalition opposed to IS but allied with the islamist forces fighting the army in Benghazi, has control of the NOC headquarters as it is located in the capital.
Nonetheless so far foreign oil buyers have continued to pay through the Tripoli-based NOC and central bank, opting for the system put in place for decades under Muammar Gaddafi.