It appeared to be the first such attack on Tripoli's port since Libyan militia loyal to warlord Khalifa Haftar began their siege of the city almost a year ago.

Smoke rises from a port of Tripoli after being attacked in Tripoli, Libya February 18, 2020.
Smoke rises from a port of Tripoli after being attacked in Tripoli, Libya February 18, 2020. (Reuters)

The UN-supported government in Libya said on Tuesday it would suspend its participation in talks in Geneva aimed at salvaging a fragile ceasefire in the North African country following an attack on Tripoli's strategic port.

The National Oil Corporation (NOC) said projectiles struck meters away from a highly explosive liquefied petroleum gas tanker discharging in the port, prompting it to evacuate fuel vessels from the area and cancel offloading operations.

A statement from Libya's UN-backed government said it would not take part in the talks until world powers take "firm positions" against warlord Khalifa Haftar and "the countries that support him."

Mustafa Sanalla, head of the NOC, warned that the city of Tripoli doesn't have operational fuel storage facilities because the capital’s main storage warehouse was evacuated as a result of the fighting.

"The consequences will be immediate: Hospitals, schools, power stations and other vital services will be disrupted," he said in a statement.

Ghassan Salame, the head of the UN support mission in Libya, called the port attack a "big breach" of the ceasefire.

Footage shared online show thick black smoke rising from the dock areas of Tripoli, supposedly from the shelling.

Since the ouster of late ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, two seats of power have emerged in oil-rich Libya: Haftar in eastern Libya supported mainly by Egypt, the UAE as well as France and Russia, and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which is backed by Turkey, Italy and Qatar and enjoys the UN and international recognition.

The current ceasefire was brokered by Russia and Turkey on Jan. 12 in Moscow but Haftar left the table without signing the ceasefire agreement.

"We hope to be able in this second round to come to some kind of consensus about what a lasting ceasefire could look like in Libya," Salame told reporters in Geneva.

Hafter's militia said that they'd hit a depot for weapons and ammunition at the port on Tuesday.

But Mustafa al Mujie, spokesman for Operation Volcano of Anger, a military campaign launched by government forces, said the Haftar attack left a number of commercial vessels and goods in flames, denying reports that claimed a Turkish ship or ammunition warehouse was targeted.

Turkish officials later in the day confirmed that Haftar's militants had fired on a Turkish ship near the docks. Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters the attack "missed its target" and Turkish forces fired back.

The UN support mission in Libya said five military representatives from each side have met indirectly Tuesday in Geneva, more than a week after they ended their first round of negotiations without striking a deal that would help end the fighting in Tripoli.

Salame said the talks would focus on stopping "the frequent violations of the truce," as well as helping civilians displaced by the fighting return to the capital and its surrounding area.

He also said further talks on handling Libya's suffering economy would take place in March. These will focus on "very sensitive issues," including the fairer redistribution of state revenues across divided Libya, he said.

Salame also said that the two sides would hold political talks on Feb. 26 in Geneva.

US envoy meets Haftar

Haftar meanwhile met on Tuesday with the US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland in the eastern city of Benghazi, the embassy and Haftar's office said.

It was the first visit for Norland to Libya since he was named the US ambassador to the African country in August, the embassy officials said.

The US envoy said Haftar stated his “commitment to a permanent ceasefire.”

Norland said he would visit Tripoli and meet with Prime Minister Fayez al Sarraj "as soon as security conditions permit."

In the previous round of military talks, the UN mission said there was "broad consensus" between the two sides on the "urgency" of safeguarding Libyan territorial integrity and stopping “the flow of non-Libyan fighters" into the country's conflict.

The Libyan government and US officials have also accused Haftar of relying on hundreds of Russian mercenaries. Sudanese armed groups from the Darfur region recently joined the fighting on both sides, according to a report by UN experts.

Powerful tribes loyal to warlord Haftar have also largely stopped the country's oil production, after they seized last month several large oil export terminals along Libya’s eastern coast as well as its southern oil fields.

Oil output falls

The country’s National Oil Corporation, which dominates Libya’s critical oil industry and is based in Tripoli, said losses from the oil closures have reached more than $1.7 billion as of Tuesday.

The daily oil production has since the closure fallen to 123,537 barrels a day from about 1.2 million. It put the daily losses at close to $60.2 million.

Oil closures have reached more than $1.6 billion as of Monday.

Libya has the ninth-largest known oil reserves in the world and the biggest oil reserves in Africa.

The corporation reiterated its warning that the blockade is quickly depleting fuel that supplies Libyan power stations.

The Geneva talks come amid intensified diplomacy among world powers seeking to end the conflict that has ravaged Libya for nine years and increasingly drawn in foreign powers.

European Union foreign ministers agreed on Monday to launch a new maritime effort focused on enforcing the UN arms embargo around the North African country.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies