Worsening Libya conflict increases threat to ports and shipping

29 Jan 2015

Worsening Libya conflict increases threat to ports...

Vessels operating in Libyan waters will remain vulnerable to attack amid limited prospects for a near-term resolution to the country’s de factor civil war. The greatest threat extends to ships operating in waters that lie outside the direct control of the internationally recognised government, though port operations across the country have also been repeatedly disrupted by civil unrest and strikes. Operators who continue to transit Libyan waters will have to contend with higher insurance costs and the likelihood of further unplanned disruption to operations. To mitigate these threats, operators should establish communications with local agents prior to arrival at ports and regularly review emergency procedures.


On 28 January, Libya’s internationally recognised government announced that authorities in the eastern city of Tobruk had released the oil tanker Anwaar Afriqya. The vessel was originally bound for the port of Misrata, which is under control of forces aligned with the rival administration based in Tripoli, when Libyan air force jets forced it to divert to government-controlled Tobruk. The incident was demonstrative of the worsening threat to vessels in Libyan waters, especially those that lie outside official government control. The Libyan air force’s bombing of a Greek-owned oil tanker around 3 km from the port of Derna on 4 January, which left two crew members dead and two injured, underscored the seriousness of the threat in Libyan waters. Libya’s National Oil Company, which chartered the tanker, claimed that authorities had been properly notified of the Araevo’s itinerary, claims the government has denied. The state-run oil company has sought to maintain an independent stance in the conflict but both the recognised government and its rivals in Tripoli have claimed authority over the NOC and Libya’s oil sector. The bombing of the tanker underscores the complexities of the political and security environment in Libya, where rival political authorities in Tripoli and Beida are backed by a complex network of opposing armed groups divided along tribal, regional and political affiliation.


The attack on the Araevo received widespread international attention and criticism but was only the latest in a series of worrying incidents to affect Libya’s maritime sector. In December, government jets bombed the port of Misrata and a steel factory in the city. Government aircraft have also carried out repeated attack against vessels in Benghazi and Derna in recent months, and in January the military warned that any vessel bound for Misrata would be “targeted directly and immediately”. The threat underscored the extent of the risk that crews and vessels operating in Libya are exposed to.


The conflict has continued despite a UN-brokered ceasefire, itself a reflection of the limited prospects for a diplomatic resolution in the near term. Unrest and fighting between rival armed groups has already led to the frequent closure of ports over 2014 and such disruptions are expected to continue in 2015. Since heavy fighting in August 2014 left Tripoli’s international airport badly damaged, armed groups have increasingly targeted critical infrastructure, as evidenced by the recent rebel offensive against the oil ports of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf. The targeting of vessels and port infrastructure is expected to continue as both sides seek to cut off supply lines and revenues to their rivals and seize control of, or deny access to, strategic assets.


Violence in Libya has already seen the country categorised as high risk by London’s Joint War Committee, which rates shipping risks for international insurers and in August warned that vessels in the country were at risk of aerial attack. The situation for the shipping sector in Libya is likely to worsen, with the most recent violence expected to result in higher insurance rates. Operators typically are only able to secure insurance coverage in Libya for a seven-day period, but the escalation of attacks against the maritime sector could see vessels unable to secure coverage for journeys to Libya for any length of time. Reflecting the risk, in January, the International Chamber of Shipping warned its members, which includes most of the global merchant fleet, to avoid Libyan waters.


This could have serious financial implications for operators who rely on the Libyan market. The country’s oil exports, though volatile, and its heavy reliance on imports, with up to 90 percent of food sourced from abroad, make Libya a potentially lucrative market for maritime trade. Any ban on insurance coverage would have serious implications for Libya’s access to maritime trade. The financial impact on companies such as European refiners who rely on seaborne goods from Libya could also be severe. Insecurity in Libya’s interior and weak control over the border areas would create logistical and security challenges for any effort to develop land-based alternatives to the country’s port infrastructure.


The vessels most vulnerable to attack in Libya will continue to be those that call on ports that lie outside of government control, including Derna, Misrata, Tripoli, and Benghazi, where intense ground clashes are ongoing. However, vulnerabilities in the wider port sector will persist, with the 9 January declaration of force majeure at Es Sider and Ras Lanuf indicative of the potential for a sudden deterioration of the security situation at facilities already under government control. The risk of disruption and port closures due to violence and unrest, often by disaffected local staff, will remain closely linked to the broader prevailing political and economic conditions in Libya, which are widely expected to deteriorate over 2015.


Absent an improvement in the security situation, the recent violence affecting the maritime sector will result in a steady decline in the number of vessels willing to operate in the country. However, vessels already contracted to call on Libyan ports are faced with serious legal and security considerations. To mitigate these risks, operators continuing to use Libyan waters should:


  •   Establish and maintain communication with agents in port and local security forces prior to calling
  •   Conduct a thorough risk assessment and review standard emergency procedures;
  •   Send arrival notices to local port authorities and await permission to call
  •   Minimise the extent and duration of activities in port
  •   Organise additional watches to ensure all access routes to the vessel are guarded and both landside and waterside are monitored
  •   Do not allow crew to disembark or leave the port area
  •   Establish communication with the National Oil Corporation if engaged in oil- or gas-related activities, and monitor official statements from the oil and gas ministry which is aligned with the internationally recognised government


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