Benghazi/Tunis: Air strikes by forces loyal to Libya`s recognized government on Saturday hit targets near the eastern oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Es-Sider to stop an advance by a rival force, killing at least four people, officials said.
Workers evacuated the Es Sider port, the country`s biggest export terminal with a capacity of more than 400,000 barrels a day, a worker said.
The clashes are part of a struggle in the North African country between competing governments allied to armed factions, 3-1/2 years after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. At stake are control of Libya`s government and the country`s vast oil reserves.
The recognized prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, has been forced into eastern Libya since a group called Libya Dawn seized Tripoli, the capital, in August and set up its own government and parliament.
Forces loyal to the rival government in Tripoli have launched an operation to take the oil ports and expel the forces of former army General Khalifa Haftar allied to Thinni, its commander, Tarek Eshnaina, told Reuters.
"We are a third force commissioned by the chief of staff, Abdulsalam Jadallah, and commander-in-chief, Nouri Abu Sahmain," he said. Abu Sahman is head of the General National Congress (GNC), the rival parliament based in Tripoli.
"We were about one kilometer (half a mile) from the main gate of Es Sider oil port, but we had to withdraw about two kilometers (1-1/4 miles) after Haftar`s planes carried out air strikes, which killed two of our members and wounded three," he said.
Two oil security guards were killed and four wounded, a medical source said.
Saqer al-Joroushi, Haftar`s air force commander, said his forces had attacked positions near Sirte, a central costal city, which was confirmed by residents.
He said a rival force coming from Misrata, a city west of Sirte and the ports, had advanced toward the terminals with a large number of cars.
The House of Representatives, elected in June and also now based in the east, said the attackers had been joined by the Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is fighting Haftar`s troops in a separate battle in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Last month, Libya Dawn took El Sharara oilfield, which produces more than 340,000 barrels per day, in the south after a force allied to Thinni had withdrawn.
Officials were not immediately available to comment on the status of Es Sider after a worker told Reuters that staff had left the site. An oil official had said earlier the port and the Ras Lanuf terminal farther way from the fighting were working.
The eastern oil ports are controlled by Ibrahim Jathran, who could be seen directing troops during Saturday`s clashes, according to a video posted on websites close to his group. Jathran, also allied to Thinni, has threatened to call for eastern secession should world powers recognize the General National Congress.
Joroushi also said his forces had bombed targets near Zuwara west of Tripoli. The town is home to a gas and oil port.