- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2011

RAS LANOUF, Libya (AP) — Libyan rebels regained two key oil complexes in a high-speed advance west on Libya’s coast on Sunday, retracing the steps of their first march toward the capital with their path cleared by the world’s most powerful air force.

Now that they have the oil, the rebels are making tentative plans to exploit Libya’s most valuable natural resource. But production is at a trickle, the foreign oil workers and their vital expertise have fled the country, and even talk of a marketing deal with Qatar seems murky at best.

The coastal complexes at Ras Lanouf and Brega were responsible for a large chunk of Libya’s 1.5 million barrels of daily exports, which have all but stopped since the uprising that began Feb. 15 and was inspired by the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Egypt.

On the eastern approach of Ras Lanouf, airstrikes hit three empty tank transporters and left two buildings that appeared to be sleeping quarters pockmarked with shrapnel. Like at the oil port of Brega and the city of Ajdabiya before it, Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s troops appear to have left in a hurry, abandoning ammunition and disappearing without a fight.

“There was no resistance. Gadhafi’s forces just melted away,” said Suleiman Ibrahim, a 31-year-old volunteer, sitting in the back of a pickup truck on the road between the two towns. “This couldn’t have happened without NATO. They gave us big support.”

In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged that the Libya operation could last months, as the Obama administration tried to bolster its case for bringing the United States into another war in the Muslim world.

The U.N. Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Col. Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power. The airstrikes have crippled Col. Gadhafi’s forces, allowing rebels to advance less than two weeks after they had seemed at the brink of defeat.

“As they move round the coast, of course, the rebels will increasingly control the exit points of Libya’s oil,” British Defense Secretary Liam Fox told the BBC. “That will produce a very dynamic and a very different equilibrium inside Libya. How that will play out in terms of public opinion and the Gadhafi regime remains to be seen.”

The agreement with the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar could allow the rebels to exploit Libya’s vast oil reserves — most of which are in the eastern territory the rebels control. With no ships coming or going, Libya’s tanks are full to the brim. Until they are emptied, there’s nowhere to store any oil that is pumped from the ground.

Qatar, which has conducted at least one sortie over Libya, is the only Arab country known to have actively joined with the international force.

“We trust them, so basically they are the ones who are going to market our oil for us,” Ali Tarhouni, the rebel finance official, told the Associated Press on Friday. “For Qatar there’s no words to describe what they’ve done for the Libyan cause.”

Officials at Qatar’s Ministry of Energy and Industry could not be reached for comment. Executives with the Arabian Gulf Oil Co., the National Oil Co. subsidiary in eastern Libya that broke free from its parent company, also could not be reached. Repeated calls to Libya’s oil minister went unanswered.

Eastern oil officials said more than a week ago they were still producing about 100,000 barrels per day from two key fields. But it was unclear whether such levels were sustainable, given the security problems across the country and the exodus of foreign workers from the vital sector.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency said recently it believed that Libyan oil production had “slowed to a trickle” while exports had “ground to a halt.” The IEA said it believed it could take months for Libyan oil to reappear on the world market.

Mr. Gates said the international action appeared to be a success, with the no-fly zone in place and sustainable with “a lot less effort than it took to set it up.” He said the Pentagon was planning how to draw down resources that will be assigned to European and other countries pledging to take on a larger role.

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