Libya stops gas exports to Italy after militia fight

TRIPOLI Sun Mar 3, 2013 4:26pm GMT

The logo of oil company Eni is pictured at its San Donato Milanese headquarters near Milan February 5, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

The logo of oil company Eni is pictured at its San Donato Milanese headquarters near Milan February 5, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya has stopped gas exports to Italy from its Mellitah complex after fighting on Saturday between militias, Libya's National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Italy's Eni said on Sunday.

Libya's defence ministry sent security personnel to secure the complex, about 100 km (60 miles) west of the capital Tripoli, to ensure exports could resume soon, said Abdufattah Shagan, chairman of Mellitah, an NOC-Eni joint venture.

Mellitah supplies Italy with gas through the Greenstream pipeline, which at full capacity pumps at least 8 billion cubic metres. Italy gets most of its gas from Algeria, Russia and Norway, with Libya providing about 10 percent.

Saturday's firefight began after an argument escalated between former rebel fighters from nearby Zuwara and those guarding Mellitah, who are from the town of Zintan, a security source said. The clashes were now over, the source said.

It was the latest violent disruption to the energy industry in Libya where protests have shut down oil-export terminals in recent months and in the North African region following January's bloody hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant.

"Gas exports have been completely halted," NOC deputy chairman Mustafa Sunalla told Reuters on Sunday.

Thousands of former rebels who fought to overthrow former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 have been employed in a protection force to look after Libyan oil and gas installations.

But in recent months activists and local militia have disrupted operations in Libya's main industry, pursuing goals such as better living conditions or more regional autonomy. In July they forced the closure of three major oil terminals.

This has hurt OPEC member Libya's oil output, which returned to close to pre-war levels of 1.6 million barrels per day (bpd) faster than analysts expected after the 2011 conflict.

Eni said gas flows from Mellitah to Gela, Sicily, had been halted and Italy's industry ministry had been alerted.

Speaking from the complex, where only emergency staff were present, Mellitah's Shagan told Reuters defence ministry vehicles were on their way.

"As soon as they guarantee the security, we will resume exports in 48 hours," he said. Defence Minister Mohammed al-Barghathi told Reuters the armed forces were on their way.

Mellitah has two plants - one treating oil and condensate from the Wafa fields and another for gas and condensate from the Sabratha offshore platform, according to Mellitah's website.

A senior Libyan oil official said production at both Wafa and Sabratha had been affected by the Mellitah shutdown. He said he hoped the situation would be resolved in "coming days".

It was not immediately clear what caused the dispute but a Zuwara resident said on Sunday tensions had escalated for days.

"There were two bouts of fighting yesterday. Now there is no shooting but it is possible there could be more fighting," said the resident, who gave his name as Ayub.

"From what I understand, some of the Mellitah staff were evacuated, others came to Zuwara by boat from there."

(Additional reporting by Stephen Jewkes in Milan; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Jason Webb)

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