Islamic State strengthened its hold in central Libya, seizing territory near the country’s largest oil terminal, as the United Nations warned that time is running out on its efforts to broker a deal among warring factions.
The jihadist group had been tightening its grip on Sirte over recent months. It claimed late on Tuesday to have finally succeeded in taking former President Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown, after overrunning a nearby power station.
Islamic State has been able to consolidate as Libya, which holds Africa’s largest oil reserves, fragmented after the overthrow of Qaddafi in a NATO-backed uprising in 2011. The country has two rival governments and dozens of militias that are resisting central oversight.
The jihadist gains have added urgency to the latest round of UN-sponsored talks held on Wednesday in Berlin. UN envoy Bernardino Leon said at a press conference after the session that the goal is an agreement between the rival administrations based in Tripoli and Tobruk by the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan next week.
“The challenge is not only that they agree on this draft, but that they agree soon,” Leon said. Standing next to him, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the negotiations may be “the last chance to save Libya from a total collapse.”
As well as the threat of Islamic State, Leon cited the collapse in oil production that has left Libya with an “impossible” budget deficit, dwindling currency reserves and unpaid civil servants.
Crude output, which averaged more than 1.5 million barrels a day during Qaddafi’s last decade, slumped to 405,000 barrels last month.
Islamic State already controls the desert town of Naufaliya, which is only about 30 miles from Es Sider and neighboring Ras Lanuf, Libya’s biggest and third-biggest export terminals. Both have been closed since December, when they were caught up in factional fighting.
“It’s becoming clear that they’re getting more structure and their control of this region is getting more serious,” said Riccardo Fabiani, senior North Africa analyst at the London-based Eurasia Group. He said Islamic State may not be strong enough to retain control of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider, “but they can definitely overrun them and cause damage.”
Es Sider and Ras Lanuf aren’t currently under threat, and there are forces in place “ready to stop any attack on the oil region,” Petroleum Facilities Guard spokesman Ali al-Hasy said by phone on Wednesday.
Around Sirte, Islamic State has been fighting against the Libya Dawn militia loyal to the Tripoli government, which contains Islamist elements and runs much of the country’s west. The jihadists also have a presence in the east, controlled by the internationally recognized Tobruk administration.
The group claimed attacks in Libya including one at the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli in January in which 14 people were killed. In March, it released a video showing the beheading of Egyptian Christians on a beach after they were kidnapped in Sirte.