Firefighters on Sunday put out fires which had raged for four days at Ras Lanuf oil terminal after an attack by Islamic State militants, who have vowed to continue their week-long assault on the lucrative oil crescent.
Thursday morning heavily-armed fighters stormed the terminal, located in the east of the country, and attacked the Petroleum Facilities Guards before retreating and setting fire to five of the terminal’s 13 storage tanks. A pipeline leading from the Amal oil field to the next door Sidra terminal, Libya’s largest, was also targeted, said Mohamed al-Manfi, an energy official allied with Libya’s internationally-recognised government.
The huge blazes sparked an “environmental catastrophe”, officials from the eastern-branch of the National Oil Corporation said, as towers of black smoke choked the entire area and the fire damaged power supply lines. Firefighters fought for days to put out the infernos which severely damaged four of the tanks, and caused the fifth to completely collapse. Meanwhile residents attempted to build barrier to stop the oil and fire from reaching gas and water pipelines and the main road.
At least seven other storage tanks have been damaged by fires from IS attacks earlier this month, resulting in the loss of some 1.3 million barrels of oil, NOC spokesman Mohamed Harari said. Up to 3 million barrels are thought to be at risk because of the latest attack, he added.
In the wake of the fresh assaults the UN envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler renewed an appeal for the country’s political forces to stand together. “Once again Libya’s resources under terrorist attack in Ras Lanuf. Political process must urgently catch up (with) military developments,” he wrote on Twitter.
But IS vowed to continue their offensive on the oil terminals and fields in a video posted on the groups official Telegram channel shortly after the attacks. “Today Sidra port and Ras Lanuf and tomorrow the port of Brega and after the ports of Tobruk, Serir, Jallo, and Kufra,” said an Islamic State fighter, identified as Abu Abdelrahman al-Libi, referencing other major oil facilities in the east and south of the country.
The fighters – which are anchored in the central city of Sirte some 216km to the west of the fields – seized fresh territory in early January capturing Bin Jawad, one of the closest towns to Sidra and Ras Lanuf.
On Sunday Libyan army officials said that it had launched airstrikes on the small coastal town, hitting weapons depots and vehicles mounted with medium and heavy weapons.
But the army’s attacks have not stopped IS from continuing its attacks and solidifying a reign of terror on its territories. On Thursday it published photos of their fighters in Sirte executing three men accused of being affiliated to the Libyan army, apostasy and armed robbery.
Masked fighters shot dead the accused in front of a crowd of Sirte residents, before whipping four others for drinking alcohol.
The latest photos followed a fifteen minute propaganda video circulated of their fighters in Benghazi, Libya’s war-torn second city that has been the scene of fierce fighting between forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government and the rival administration.
IS relatively recently joined in complicating the 18-month conflict.
The clip features both Libyan and Tunisian militants training and fighting in Benghazi’s embattled Leithi and Sabri districts – in the south and north of the city. The video shows off their heavy weaponry including 106 millimeter anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft guns, which they fire at Libyan air force planes.
The fighters threaten parliamentarians, “seculars” and supporters of the army and police before turning their attentions on the west.
“We will not stop fighting until the call to prayer is heard, and we pray, in Rome,” a masked militant says.
In a final act of defiance an IS soldier stands in front of Benghazi’s iconic lighthouse, to deliver the closing message to Libyans.
“Give up your weapons and repent or we are going to kill you all, “ he says to the camera.
Neighbouring countries and the West have all expressed rising alarm at IS’s rapid expansion in Libya, just across the Mediterranean from Europe.
On Saturday the Algerian government warned of a large influx of Moroccans crossing its territory to reach Libya. Many of IS’ foot soldiers are Moroccans, while the group has been increasing its call for North African Muslims to join it ranks.
The country’s minister in charge of North African affairs had met earlier with the Moroccan ambassador to report the unusual number of people crossing from the Casablanca area in recent weeks, Algerian state media reported.
Algeria told the ambassador that Moroccans who head to Libya without documentation will be sent home.
A day before, America’s top military officer said urgent and decisive military action was needed to halt IS’s expansion in Libya, warning the jihadist group wanted to use the country as a regional base.
“You want to take decisive military action to check ISIL’s expansion and at the same time you want to do it in such a way that’s supportive of a long-term political process,” said Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, using an alternate acronym for IS.
“I think it’s pretty clear to all of us – French, U.S. alike – that whatever we do is going to be in conjunction with the new government. My perspective is we need to do more,” he added, after talks with France’s military, which is active in parts of Africa battling Islamic extremists.
His warnings echoed comments made on Thursday by the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove who said he feared IS’s “senior leadership” would be sent to Libya, the jihadi new safe haven, as their territory in Syria and Iraq was increasingly pummeled by airstrikes.
“We know that the senior leadership in Syria is really monitoring what is happening in Libya. So if they feel the pressure is too high, there might be a temptation to move to another hotspot,” de Kerchove said.
“There, for the time, being it’s the perfect chaos they like,” he said highlighting the lack of government and lawlessness in the country.
Libya’s embattled unity government was formed last week, in accordance with an UK-backed peal deal that representatives from the country’s rival factions signed in December. However, it is still needs a vote of approval from the official parliament – the House of Representatives – and to be endorsed by the rival administration which currently controls Tripoli, where the joint body is supposed to be based. The UN and other regional powers hope the unity government will end Libya’s civil war, uniting both sides against IS.