Libyan rebels, badly in need of funds and arms to sustain their pressure against embattled leader Moammar Qadhafi, were dealt a major setback as airstrikes by Qadhafi forces on oil fields in rebel-held east halted oil production for at least four weeks.
Wahid Bughaigis, who serves as oil minister for the National Transitional Council (NTC), told reporters that oil production from the key fields of Messla and Sarir
will not resume until at least four weeks, as oil pumping equipments were damaged in frequent attacks by Qadhafi forces since February.
Armed rebels, who have been trying to fend off the counter-offensive by pro-Qadhafi forces to retain control of cities in the country's east, are said to be at a real disadvantage against the well-equipped troops, who are now hell-bent on suppressing the rebellion at any cost, ignoring international pressure.
The Qadhafi loyalists have already recaptured several towns and cities from the rebels, and are making serious efforts to retake the remaining two rebel strong-holds of Benghazi and Ajdabiya using aerial bombings and heavy artillery fire. Hundreds of people, including civilians, are believed to have been killed in the anti-rebel offensive.
After seizing Brega, a main oil export terminal in the eastern half of the country, the rebels captured the key oil refinery of Ras Lanouf in March.
The two oil sites together contribute 1.5 million barrels of Libya's daily oil exports, which have been significantly reduced since the revolt began on February 15.
Operated by rebel-controlled Arabian Gulf Oil Company (AGOCO), the Messla oil field was bombarded in the first week of April.
A desert oil field that lies about 400 kilometers south of Ajdabiyah, Messla is also responsible for processing oil from other sites in the south-east.
The rebels started exporting oil from their strongholds in the east at a time AGOCO had a stock of about three million barrels at Tobruk's terminal. It is also connected through a pipeline with the Sarir oil field, the country's largest in the Sirte basin, which had a daily output of around 100,000 barrels.
Rebels shipped 1 million barrels of crude to Qatar, which helped them sell it in European markets and earn the NTC $129 million.
But attempts by Qadhafi's forces on rebel-held oil refineries and cities to disrupt oil flows by striking at the stretched pipelines put the rebels at shortage of funds.
Cash-strapped NTC is finding it difficult to buy weapons and ensure food supplies to the east, where the rebel body is heading the fight against the Qadhafi regime.
The rebels have formed a local government in Libya's second biggest city of Benghazi, where it was forced to cut power production by 25 percent to save fuel and money.
Owning large petroleum reserves, Libya is one of the world's ten richest oil-producing countries, where normal oil output recorded 1.6 million barrels a day before the crisis .
But the north-eastern African country lost its position as the continent's third-largest oil producer since the unrest began in February. Collapse of its oil production, and worries over Libyan unrest, triggered a price rally in global oil markets.
by RTT Staff Writer
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