Instability over control of disputed oil fields continues between the UN-backed Tripoli-based GNA and Tobruk-based LNA, led by General Khalifa Haftar, as the country’s largest oil field becomes the latest flashpoint.

In this March 5, 2011 file photo, an anti-government rebel sits with an anti-aircraft weapon in front an oil refinery in Ras Lanouf, eastern Libya. The United States France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain have called upon forces loyal to a Libyan general to withdraw from three eastern oil terminals seized earlier this week, in a statement Monday, Sept. 13, 2016.
In this March 5, 2011 file photo, an anti-government rebel sits with an anti-aircraft weapon in front an oil refinery in Ras Lanouf, eastern Libya. The United States France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain have called upon forces loyal to a Libyan general to withdraw from three eastern oil terminals seized earlier this week, in a statement Monday, Sept. 13, 2016. (AP)

The Libyan National Army (LNA) has started an offensive to take the control of a pumping substation for the El Sharara oil field, but the main production area is still occupied by armed tribesmen.

The LNA, based in the east of the politically divided country, said on Wednesday it had seized the field, which normally produces 315,000 barrels a day, from tribesmen and protesters who forced operations to halt when they took the site on December 8.

The possibility of fighting over the future of the largest oil field in Libya has been increasing after an LNA offensive helped to take control of other oil fields from armed groups.

El Sharara, located 900 kilometres south of Tripoli, represents nearly one-third of Libya’s total oil production. However, the field has been closed since tribes invaded in December.

For now, the two strongest forces in the country, the UN-backed Tripoli government and Haftar’s supporting eastern administration, have faced off to control the site. Controlling the oil fields in El Sharara will be important in any future elections, particularly with two administrations claiming the right to govern the country.

Forces loyal to the UN-recognised Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) had travelled to south to protect the fields from Haftar.

Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) on Friday urged all parties to avoid any escalation at the El Sharara oil field and said it would not resume normal operations until security had been restored.

Haftar’s forces already control some oil fields in the north of the country, and is moving south to push out militias from the region.

The LNA in mid-January announced the start of an offensive intended to "purge the south of terrorists and criminal groups", including rebels from Chad.

French fighter jets struck a heavily-armed rebel convoy from Chad that was also located in southern Libya.

Together with Chadian rebels, the south of Libya has become a safe haven for the terrorist groups and militias that are making it hard to establish stability in the fragmented country.

On Tuesday, the French Foreign Ministry said that Haftar's operation was successful in "eliminating terrorist targets" and was a way to “durably hinder the activities of human traffickers”.

Southern Libya is the scene of a struggle between the country's minority Tubu and Arab tribes, who are fighting for control of cross border smuggling routes. The region is a central hub for human traffickers coming from Africa.

The Tubu community has claimed for some time that their rights are not recognised in a country where most people identify as Arab. Some members are accusing the LNA of causing tension and provoking rival Arab tribes to attack their towns and villages.

The NOC chair Mustafa Sanallah wants to establish a national oil protection guard to prevent the sites being captured by militias and to bring order to the country's oil industry.

Oil production in Libya, a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), has been disrupted since conflict broke out in 2011, with protesters and armed groups often targeting oil fields and energy infrastructure. 

National production now stands at less than one million barrels per day (bpd), well below pre-2011 capacity of 1.6 million bpd.

How did it get to this point?

Libya has been mired in conflict since the 2011 Arab uprisings and the subsequent overthrow of leader Muammar Gaddafi, leaving the country with two main rival governments. 

The Government of National Accord (GNA), is based in Tripoli and was formed as part of a UN-brokered process laid out in the 2015 Libyan Political Process.

The Tobruk-based House of Representatives was formed after 2014 elections and is led by the powerful general of the self-styled Libyan National Army, Haftar Khalifa. Khalifa is strongly backed by Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el Sisi.

The Tobruk government was the internationally-recognised government until the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement in December 2015. 

In addition to these two rival administrations, there are several militias that wield considerable influence and control large swathes of territory in the country, many of which have tribal alliances.

Source: TRT World