By Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli
TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Libya’s internationally recognised government asked 40 foreign firms including French oil major Total to renew their licences or have their operations suspended, pressuring Europe to stop an eastern military offensive against Tripoli.
The firms have three months to renew their licences, the economy and industry ministry said in a decree, after an official earlier said their operations had been suspended.
The ministry cited legal procedures, but the action comes as the Tripoli-based government seeks to drum up support to fend off an assault by Khalifa Haftar’s Libya National Army (LNA) force, which has been trying for one month to take the capital.
Tripoli is home to the recognised administration but some European countries such as France have also supported eastern military commander Haftar as a way to fight militants in a country in chaos since the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The general also enjoys the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
The decree was published a day after Tripoli prime minister Fayez al-Serraj met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, coming from Berlin and Rome, to bolster his case.
Macron had called for a ceasefire but with the condition attached that all armed groups — including those helping Serraj defend the capital — be monitored.
Haftar also would not have to withdraw his troops east, allowing him to book a huge territorial gain, which upset the Serraj government, said Jalel Harchaoui, research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague.
“Officially, those 40 licenses were scheduled to be expiring now,” he said. “In reality, the decree is motivated by a desire to show European states that their leniency towards the eastern-Libyan faction has immediate consequences on their economic interests.”
Total, with large-scale oil and gas interests in Libya, is the only company on the list known to have extensive dealings there. Others include French aerospace firm Thales, German engineering firm Siemens and telecoms equipment firm Alcatel-Lucent, now owned by Finland’s Nokia.
Last month, the Tripoli-based interior ministry suspended security cooperation with France, accusing Paris of backing Haftar, a commander from the east of the country where a rival government holds sway.
Highlighting France’s apparently complex position, the foreign minister of Haftar’s eastern parallel government visited France, though it was not immediately clear whether any French officials had received him.
In the capital Tripoli, three rockets hit a western suburb overnight close to the heavily fortified U.N. compound but otherwise there was less fighting than last week as life slowed down with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The United Nations has failed to broker a ceasefire after the offensive took it by surprise. Its special envoy Ghassan Salame has mostly stayed on the ground but his mission has reduced staffing levels, U.N. officials say.
One senior health worker was severely wounded as he travelled in an ambulance car in a southern Tripoli district that was reportedly attacked by Haftar-affiliated fighters, the U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA said in a statement.
European countries including Italy and France have taken a strong interest in Libya, both because of its natural resources and because of its status as the main departure point for migrants attempting to enter Europe across the Mediterranean. European countries have backed Libyan efforts that have succeeded in reducing the numbers attempting the journey.
Two boats carrying 214 migrants were intercepted by the Libyan coast guard late on Wednesday and taken back to the shore, the U.N. migration agency said.
“As clashes continue in the capital, we are concerned about the return and arbitrary detention of migrants in #Libya,” the International Organization for Migration said in a tweet.
IOM spokesman Joel Millman said the 107 people on the first boat included 12 women and seven children, while the 107 people on the second boat were all men, 92 of them Sudanese, and there had been no reports of missing people or bodies retrieved.
In the south, three people were killed on Thursday in a suspected hit-and-run attack by Islamic State militants on the town of Ghadwa, residents and a military official said, the second such attack within days.
(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami, Ayman al-Warfalli, Tom Miles, Bate Felix and John IrishWriting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Catherine Evans, Peter Graff and William Maclean)