| AMAL, Libya
AMAL, Libya Oct 26 Abdula Altako was killed in
March guarding the oil field he worked for, one of the first but
by no means the last of Libya's oil workers to die defending the
Abandoned by their foreign owners during the uprising
against Muammar Gaddafi, the fields have been watched over by
local workers aiming to deter looters and prevent facilities
from falling into disrepair.
Altako, who worked for private German oil and gas company
Wintershall, was starting his morning guard shift when he was
ambushed and shot dead in his car.
"We have a lot of patriots protecting fields. I signed
orders that sent engineers out that ended up dying," interim oil
and finance minister Ali Tarhouni told Reuters in an interview.
Tarhouni credits the heroism of ordinary Libyans for the
fact that the industry is returning to normal faster than
expected. But the sacrifice will come to nothing if oil firms
are not prepared to send foreign workers back.
OIL OIL OIL
Libya is reliant on oil for about 80 percent of its GDP,
exporting around 1.3 million barrels of oil per day before the
war. Other potential sources of wealth -- a neglected tourism
industry and unexploited mineral reserves in the south -- will
take time to develop.
Almost all of Libya's estimated $170 billion in assets are
still frozen despite sweeping pledges to make funds available,
and the country is desperate for cash.
It is little wonder then that there are still many Libyans
prepared to make dangerous journeys to isolated areas of the
vast Saharan desert, accompanied by squads of rebel fighters or
simply armed locals, to evaluate the damage inflicted by the war
and to carry out essential repairs.
"Makes sense really; no point in getting rid of the regime
if you're not willing to then do what it takes to repair the
damage to the economy (and) oil sector," said Zara Rahman, a
researcher at OpenOil, an organisation that promotes
transparency in the oil industry.
Rahman spent a week in October interviewing oil workers at
different companies in Libya for an OpenOil report.
"Given the high level of education that is required to have
any sort of position in the oil sector, they're all educated
enough to realise that the oil sector is what drives the Libyan
economy," she said.
But there are still few signs foreign oil firms are prepared
to take the plunge.
Oil companies are still mainly visible only in hotel lobbies
in the form of security contractors hired to assess
infrastructure and monitor threats to security. The first step
no doubt, but it is only a tentative move.
The few foreign engineers here are understandably rattled by
the constant ring of gunfire even in supposedly peaceful areas
like Tripoli, where gun battles between rebels and pockets of
Gaddafi loyalists erupted in four districts only a week ago.
Anti-aircraft rocket launchers and machine guns mounted on
pick-up trucks across the capital and fighters brandishing
AK-47s at every turn do little to soothe worries about further
outbreaks of violence.
Foreigners are also disgruntled about a perceived build-up
in tension within the new government and between tribes, and
some are preparing for the worst.
"They put a lot of pressure on us to come back. But you'll
see, in a month we'll be gone again," said one Italian engineer,
one of the first to be sent back by the foreign oil company he
SAFETY ISSUES REMAIN PARAMOUNT
The dangers that local oil workers are agreeing to undertake
to restart production remain unthinkable to many in the west.
Wintershall, Libya's second largest foreign oil producer,
succeeded in restarting output largely thanks to a small,
Abelulla Mahdy volunteered to fly a team of around 20 of the
company's Libyan employees past the battlefield at Sirte,
Gaddafi's hometown and the city outside which he was killed last
week, and over the Sahara for nearly 200 km (125 miles) to a
base at an oil field called Amal, an hour's drive to the
The flight required special permission from NATO and the
usual company plane had to be left behind in Tripoli.
"The pilot was too frightened to fly," said Mahdy, dressed
in his usual army-green jumpsuit, the lines on his deeply tanned
face creasing into a grin.
Mahdy flew the team in a small cargo plane. Many of the
passengers spent the two-hour flight on the freezing floor in
between luggage, munching on cakes, flatbreads and cheese
distributed by two engineers who had volunteered to act as
stewards. As the plane began its descent, the tension in the air
broke into smiles and laughter.
"The most important thing is that Libyans restart
production," said Sammy Nuas, one of the workers who had
volunteered to return.
Many workers are anxious, however, worried that they are
sitting ducks in the middle of the Sahara, armed with only a
handful of Kalashnikovs and a few machine guns. Militia armed by
Gaddafi still roam the desert and remote oil fields are obvious
and vulnerable targets for groups aiming to weaken the new
Without the help of foreign workers, flows can only ramp up
to a third or at best half of capacity depending on the field,
Libyans say. The speed with which flows rise is tied to the
state of wells and pipelines that have not been used for eight
or nine months.
Even at Wintershall's site, which pumped close to 100,000
barrels of oil per day before the war -- and where there is no
trace of the battle that has scarred other parts of Libya -- it
could take six months or more for flows to reach their pre-war
output rate, according to workers onsite.
"It all depends on conditions here, whether pipelines are in
good condition or we find leaks," said Salah Abdulmalik, a
The return to production could take much longer in areas
sabotaged or looted during the war, and some sites were even
bombed by NATO because they were being used as a base for
ALONE AND ARMED
In the southwest region of Fezzan, the scale of destruction
at two huge sites that produced almost half a million barrels
per day is severe, and firms have taken the first step of
deploying small teams with squads of fighters to assess damage
and begin making essential repairs. It could be many months
before significant volumes of oil begins flowing from this area.
Meanwhile, in early October, even in safer, southeastern
parts of the oil-rich Sirte basin, local workers were alone and
still prepared for the worst.
Close to Wintershall's site in the southeast, at the Amal
oil field joint-operated by Canadian oil firm Suncor, the
manager recounted how locals defended the site from looters and
attacks during the war and were ready to face more action.
When war broke out, they obtained weapons from the local
authority and were briefly shown how to use them. Then, alone,
they mounted a defense for eight long months.
"We loaded trucks with missile launchers and coordinated
with towns close by to protect the fields," said Saad Ali
Eshiem, who oversees the 50 or so workers who have returned so
The field's 24-hour patrols continued and machine guns were
still mounted in a row on pick-up trucks standing to attention
in the shade.
Mohammad Zuay, a 26-year-old oil worker on patrol, was armed
with a Kalashnikov. When asked if he had ever had to fire his
gun, he broke out into a tired smile.
"Many times," he replied.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)