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Libya’s rebels ‘live and die by oil’ Add to ...

As she changed the dressings on a burn victim at this Libyan city’s main hospital, Intensive Care Unit head nurse Judith San Pedro patiently listed all the things she’s missing.

“Antibiotics, we’re out of the good ones and we’ve got two days’ supply of the others. Sutures and gauze, we’re down to five days. Most cancer and HIV drugs, we’ve run out. Plasma and albumin, there’s none. We can’t perform most operations, just keep people alive. Our blood-analysis machine has run out of cartridges. We’re re-using examination gloves and oxygen masks.”

Oh, and she hasn’t been paid for three months. She has to go to the local refugee agency shelter to pick up lunches for her fellow nurses, most of whom are also Philippine immigrants. When she gets home, there’s no electricity until 9 p.m., when the government turns it on for three hours. And this is the region’s most advanced hospital.

Rebel-controlled eastern Libya is hanging on by a thread – and it is a thread made of oil and money, both of which have almost completely run dry here. Both the war to unseat dictator Moammar Gadhafi and the lives of the 1.5 million people in this vast Saharan region are within days of grinding to a halt.

This oil-rich region has failed to get its war-damaged oil fields exporting again, and countries such as Canada, which are happy to participate in an air war to support the rebels, are wary of providing finance to their political arm. The result, for the people on the ground in “free” Libya, is a vicious cycle of deprivation.

Both supply lines for the rebel fighters pushing toward Tripoli and supply chains that provide the entire domestic economy are dependent on supplies of money and fuel that don’t exist. Officials from NATO, which is in its fifth month of an air war to support the rebels, say they fear that rebels may be forced to retreat if supplies run short – and aid groups say a humanitarian disaster is looming if even more scarce fuel and supplies are diverted to the battlefield.

“We are short of everything – food, medicine, fuel, weapons. Yet still we manage to live,” said Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, the former human-rights lawyer who is vice-chairman of the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council, the rebels’ interim government. “It has become a volunteer society, because nobody has been paid since March but still we keep working and fighting.”

The civilian economy requires $3.5-billion to keep people fed, electricity produced, and government employees and soldiers paid for six months. And although various countries pledged almost $1-billion in June to support the east Libyan economy and the rebels, the NTC has received a single donation of $100-million, from Turkey, last month.

On Thursday, an international meeting in Turkey will try to head off the looming supply disaster. The rebels have asked that countries use frozen funds from Col. Gadhafi’s reserves to finance their administration. This is unlikely to happen for months for technical reasons, but some more donations are likely to materialize.

At the root of all these supply-chain problems, though, are the oil wells that stretch across the Sahara desert south of here. Eastern Libya should be one of the wealthiest places in the world.

The oil fields were bombed severely by Col. Gadhafi’s forces before rebels fought his army back and seized control of the east in February. There was enough oil stored in the tank farms of Tobruk for the rebels to sell four supertankers of oil on the international market – whose receipts became the main source of financing for eastern Libya’s economy and the rebel struggle in the months since Feb. 17.

But the last sale was 45 days ago. Of the $100-million donated by Turkey, $90-million was used to buy tankerloads of oil from Italy – a reversal of the usual relationship. That has provided the last remaining reserve of petroleum for the entire region and its pickup-truck army.

To sell more, the oil fields and their equipment still need major repairs. Italian repair crews have been working around the clock for months, but there are still difficult repairs to be made to turbines and to equipment that separates oil and gas.

At an interview with rebel oil officials in the key port and refining city of Tobruk, Muhammad Al-Ubaydi of the Brega Petroleum Marketing Company said that if things go well they may be able to start pumping 300,000 barrels a day (their prewar capacity was 500,000) before Aug. 1, and theoretically begin selling tankerloads of oil a week later.

“We need it badly – we need to pump the oil through Tobruk very urgently. We need the money to get food and to make payroll,” he said.

Senior officers from the rebel militias said this week that fuel shortages could force them to delay their push toward Tripoli. The rebels are effectively fighting on three fronts, in the hills of the west, in Misrata in the north, and in Brega in the south. This makes supply lines very fuel-intensive.

And there are signs that Col. Gadhafi, who has deep reserves of fuel and cash around Tripoli, is waging economic warfare with the knowledge that the east is running short of everything. On Tuesday, the region’s sheep farmers reported that Bedouin tribesmen had been paid by the dictator to buy up all the female sheep and animal-feed supplies from across the Egyptian border, destroying one of the few remaining food supplies and making civilians even more dependent on fuel to provide their food needs.

Few places in the world are as dependent on petroleum as Libya: All water for drinking and irrigating crops is delivered by diesel-fuelled well pumps from deep beneath the desert or produced using giant diesel-powered desalination plants; all electricity is generated with petroleum-powered turbines.

“Without oil, nobody in this country will have water to drink,” says Nasser Bubteina, head of the eastern Libya branch of the Great Man-Made River, a huge network of pipelines and tunnels that pumps water from beneath the Sahara to the homes and fields of Libya.

Mr. Bubteina has just barely been able to pump enough water to supply Benghazi with water, because the generators used by his pumping stations have been forced to serve double duty, providing southern Libya with electricity in the mornings and evenings. As it stands, he has enough stored to provide five days’ drinking water if fuel is cut off or diverted to the troops.

But there has been no water for crop irrigation. Farmers were able to plant and grow a successful crop for the spring harvest season because reservoirs contained three months’ supply. But they are now empty, and unless far more petroleum or money becomes available, farmers will be unable to plant this month for the autumn harvest.

“Fuel is the major issue here – crops and water and electricity, not to mention the war, everything runs on fuel,” Mr. Bubteina says. “We live and die by oil here.”

And as the oil dwindles to a trickle, the rebels of Benghazi are being forced to decide between guns and butter, between medicine and water and infantry advances – in short, between victory and survival.

Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version of this story incorrectly stated the port of Tobruk was aiming to pump 300 million barrels of oil a day, down from a prewar capacity of 500 million. The correct figures are 300,000 barrels a day, down from 500,000. This online version has been corrected.

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