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In depth: oil guards seize IS-held territory, join unity government coalition

Libyan oil guards have seized the villages of Bin Jawad and Nofliya, fighting back Islamic State militants who had been present in the area for over a year.

Monday morning clashes erupted as the Petroleum Facilities Guard’s Central Libyan division launched a surprise attack on IS positions in the area of Nofliya and Bin Jawad, 120 and 140km east of Sirte. The forces said they are fighting under the orders of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli.

“We attacked from four directions”, Libya Channel was told by Colonel Bashir Budhafira, who heads the so-called Ajdabiya Border Division and is allied with the PFG-Center.

Two PFG members were killed and five injured when a landmine exploded. They were taken to Misrata for treatment. Photos posted online also show half a dozen dead IS fighters wearing camouflage.

“We could take Sirte within hours but we are holding back because we fear Daesh will use residents as human shields”, said Mohamed al-Ghassri, spokesman of Operation Al-Bunyan al-Marsus. The Misratan-led anti-IS operation west of Sirte is also under GNA-leadership.

Just last week there were reports that IS’s “Wilayat Tarablus” (Tripoli Province) affiliate in Sirte appointed two new commanders for the area: Abu Abada al-Khartoumi al-Sudani (“the Sudanese from Khartoum”) for Bin Jawad and Abu Mussa al-Tunsi (“the Tunisian”) for Harawa, which is 60 kilometers east of Sirte.

The PFG-Center polices the Oil Crescent and has on several occasions clashed with IS militants trying to take control of oil facilities in the area, including Sidra and Ras Lanuf, Libya’s largest oil ports. Clashes were also reported in the area of Bin Jawad last month. IS has been in control of Nofliya since February 2015 and of Bin Jawad since January 2016.

The operation is coordinated with the GNA Presidency Council. “All of our military operations are done in direct coordination between the Wadi Al-Hamar Operations Room, the GNA Defense Minister and the Presidency Council, the Supreme Commander of the Libyan army”, PFG Spokesman Ali al-Hassi  in a TV statement on Monday.

The GNA Presidency Council – which also acts as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces – congratulated the PFG for seizing the two villages and confirmed the Operation is now under its “umbrella”.

The PC also formed a new Operations Room for the area from Ajdabiya to Sirte, banning any forces not under its command from fighting in the area.

The new structure is headed by Colonel Yussef Rateb Agila and has six more members: Col. Abubakr al-Maghrebi, Col. Abdelhamid al-Zwawi, Col. Salah al-Sharifi, Lieutenant Col. Abhiri al-Zway, Lt. Col. Jumaa al-Maghrebi and Lt. Ismail Aswiker. It complements the Misrata-Sirte Operations Room set up on May 5 to incorporate Operation Al-Bunyan al-Marsus.

In a separate statement on Tuesday, the Presidency Council reappointed Ibrahim Jadhran as commander of the PFG-Center, revoking a recent decision by the Interim Government in Bayda to dismiss Jadhran and appoint Muftah Hassan al-Magarief in his stead (making it the PFG Center and East Division). Jadhran is a controversial figure owing to him leading an oil blockade in 2013 and 2014 in the name of federalism, barring the government from using some of its most lucrative oil fields and causing millions in damages. Despite the controversies, Jadhran retained the loyalty of his oil guard unit.

The decision to officially reappoint him appears to be part of the agreement between the Presidency Council and Jadhran to bring the latter into the GNA-led anti-IS coalition. Ibrahim Jadhran’s brother Salem Jadhran, the mayor of Ajdabiya, was in Tripoli on Tuesday and met with GNA Prime Minister Faiez Serraj, officially to discuss projects and service delivery in the municipality. However, given the context, the visit may not have been entirely unrelated to the fighting around Bin Jawad and Nofliya.

The Presidency Council also reappointed Ali al-Ahrash as national head of the PFG upon the recomendation of Mahdi al-Barghathi, the GNA’s Defense Minister designate. Al-Ahrash was already PFG head from 2012 to 2013 and again appointed in 2014, although he was then rejected by a part of the PFG.

As Colonel Budhafira told news outlet Al-Wasat, the reappointment of the two commanders is meant to “unify the command of the PFG”, which has been affected by the divisions on the political scene.

Ironically, the PFG-Center and other forces from the Ajdabiya area fought against some of the groups now part of Al-Bunyan al-Marsus back in the spring of 2015, when coalition Libya Dawn launched Operation Sunrise to seize the oil ports guarded by the PFG. But since then, IS has spread and priorities have changed.

Current divisions in the area are between those groups that support the General Command of the Libyan Army under General Khalifa Haftar and those who accept the GNA’s political leadership. The decision of Jadhran and Budhfira to work under the GNA hardly comes as a surprise given their long-standing tensions with the army leadership. When the army launched attacks against Ajdabiya extremists several months ago, Budhfira claimed that the operation was endangering the city’s security under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Jadhran later went as far as saying that Haftar and IS were “Two sides of the same coin”.

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