Libya rebels defend oil port; look to West for help

Libya rebels defend oil port; look to West for help

Ras Lanuf: A Libyan jet streaked low over one of the country’s main oil terminals and rebel anti-aircraft guns unleashed a deafening salvo, but petrochemical engineer Ali al-Medan barely flinched.

“I had to come to work. What to do?" he said after the barrage fired by opposition fighters stationed outside the gates of the Harouge Oil Company in Ras Lanuf, the front line town in their battle against Moamer Kadhafi.

The 50-year-old had stopped on the way home from a day’s work to offer food and water to a motley group of a dozen insurgents manning anti-aircraft cannons mounted on the back of Toyota trucks.

Some wore camouflage while a couple sported oil company overalls.

Medan said production was continuing at the giant installation on the Mediterranean coast, even though exports through Ras Lanuf have largely dried up because of the fierce fighting raging a few kilometres (miles) away.

“Some people are still working as normal but there are no ships coming in. Normally they ship it from here to Italy and the rest of the world. It is the number one (terminal) in Libya."

But the petrochemical plant neighbouring the oil terminal, where he works, provides power and water to the town “so we have to work. My wife and family are in Ras Lanuf, I fear for them."

The Mediterranean coastal town has done well from Libya’s oil boom since Kadhafi nationalised the former Mobil terminal as part of his “people’s revolution."

Libya is the fourth biggest oil exporter in Africa after Nigeria, Algeria and Angola, producing around 1.8 million barrels a day, with reserves of 42 billion barrels.

Ras Lanuf plays a major part as its oil refinery produces 220,000 barrels a day.

Ras Lanuf town’s smart blocks of flats look more like those in a European resort, and it boasts a modern hospital -- where ambulances bring a stream of insurgents who have been wounded in a push by Kadhafi’s forces.

Heavy casualties show that the strategic importance of the giant oil tanks on the desert coast is clear to the opposition and Kadhafi’s forces alike.

The rebels scan the arid horizon and twice in 10 minutes fired at government warplanes, shouting “Victory or death" and “Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest).

“It is important for them and we have to hold it. He keeps sending planes and helicopters and we shoot at them," said Zachariah, the commander of the rebel battery at the terminal.

“Yesterday near here they shot down a Sukhoi," added Zachariah, who in civilian life is a driver from the Libya’s second city Benghazi, the rebel headquarters some 300 kilometres away.

The rebels dream of a time when they control the country’s oil themselves, should they topple Kadhafi after 41 years in power -- although Zachariah’s plans appeared as vague as the parallel rebel government’s.

“In several of his speeches Kadhafi said that the oil is for him and his children. After they get rid of the Kadhafis then they will see how it is going to go afterwards," he said.

The fighters flashed victory signs and cheered at the dozens of cars and pick-up trucks racing along the desert road in a desperate bid to repel Kadhafi’s forces as they threatened to wipe out the opposition gains.

Abdul Aziz al-Ghazaly, a portly, middle-aged rebel wearing a military jacket and sunglasses, said he did not mind missing the action at the front because he had found his calling.

“It is our role to guard this and other important places while other young people are going to Tripoli," he said.

But Medan, the engineer, said the West, with its thirst for oil from countries like Libya, owes it to the rebels to set up a no-fly zone to stop Kadhafi’s jets trying to rain death from the skies.

“The reaction is terrible from the west. They talk about a military option but all we want is a no-fly zone, the rest we can do ourselves," he said.