Militants who have pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) have attacked an oil field in Libya, beheaded eight Libyan security guards, and kidnapped nine foreign workers, Libyan officials said on Monday.
The attack on the al Ghani oil field near the central Libya town of Zillah took place last week. The abducted foreign workers — from the Philippines, Austria, the Czech Republic, Bangladesh, and Ghana — were working for the Austrian-owned and Malta-based oil company Value Added Oilfield Services (VAOS), according to the Times of Malta.
"We are doing everything in our power to establish the whereabouts of those missing," a company spokesman told the paper. An Austrian ministry spokesman said the workers were taken alive.
Following a series of similar attacks in recent weeks, Libyan authorities have shut down 11 oil fields around Sirte, which have a production capacity of about 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. Libya's National Oil company declared a force majeure — effectively protecting the government from contractual obligations to oil workers — and said it does not know how long the facilities will remain closed, as they are inaccessible.
This latest attack and abduction follows an escalation of attacks on foreign workers and Libyans by militant groups that have sworn allegiance to the Syria and Iraq-based caliphate amid a fast deteriorating Libya's political situation. Dozens of factions and local militias have been forming unstable alliances as the country has effectively split into two major camps.
While the influence of IS loyalists in Libya remains confined to a couple of areas — and is far less secure than the group's grip in the Middle East — self-proclaimed IS fighters in Libya have increasingly attempted to claim a spot on the country's fragmented political stage.
In recent weeks, the group executed 21 Egyptian Copts working in the country — releasing a gruesome video of their beheadings in a propaganda stunt that effectively put their presence in Libya on the map for foreign governments.
Until recently, militants had come within close reach of Libya's oil fields and ports, many of which remain under rebel control, but had not been able to pose serious threats to them. That seems to be changing — with potentially disastrous outcomes for Libya's already limping economy.
"We expect jihadist attacks on the oil infrastructure to intensify over the next several weeks and to inflict damage," New York-based risk consultancy Eurasia Group told the Wall Street Journal.
The internationally recognized Libyan government — which fled the capital of Tripoli in autumn to seek refuge in a town near the Egyptian border — has been calling on the UN to lift a 2011 arms embargo to help it fight off the militants' advance. It responded to the attack on al Ghani with air raids on militant targets.
European governments have said they are ready to step up in Libya pending a resumption of peace talks and the formation of a unity government there. While many foreign nationals have left Libya in recent months, several have stayed behind in the country's oil fields.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi