Security official says Libyan natural gas exports to Italy halted after clashes

TRIPOLI, Libya – Transport of natural gas from Libya to Italy through a major pipeline in the country’s west was halted Sunday after clashes between tribesmen and forces guarding the natural gas complex, a security official said.

The unrest was the latest of ongoing tribal clashes that are hampering efforts to bring Libya under control of the central government.

A company official said foreigners, including Italians, working at the Mettillah Oil and Gas complex near Zwara, about 110 kilometres (70 miles) from the capital, Tripoli, were evacuated after the clashes broke out on Saturday. The complex is a joint venture between Libya’s National Oil Corp. and Italy’s largest energy company, Eni SpA.

The security official said no pipelines were damaged and that the move to halt exports was taken as a security precaution. He said an employee of the company was injured during the clashes, which ended on Sunday.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

A lawmaker from Zwara, Nouri Abu-Sahmein, said the clashes broke out after guards at the complex refused to stop at a local checkpoint.

The guards are from Zintan, home of the rebels who were first to sweep into the capital, Tripoli, in August last year, dealing the decisive blow to the regime of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi. They took charge of guarding the natural gas complex, raising the anger and jealousy of local ethnic Berber tribesmen. Turf wars between different tribes in post-Gadhafi Libya over control of strategic areas are common as the central government struggles to impose order.

After the first clashes, three guards were arrested, prompting them to call in their supporters from Zintan, who surrounded the natural gas complex and fired at the local tribesmen, killing one, Abu-Sahmein said. He said local tribes want the government to send the Libyan military to guard the complex to stave off disputes and protect the country’s resources.

The Mettillah complex is one of Libya’s largest oil and gas production facilities. Exports to Italy were halted during the civil war in 2011. The complex resumed operations in October 2011.