Libyan Militants Just Seized A Central Bank Branch With As Much As $100 Billion Inside

LibyaREUTERS/Esam Omran Al-FetoriMembers of the Libyan pro-government forces, backed by locals, gather on a tank outside the Central Bank, near Benghazi port, January 21, 2015.

Fighters loyal to a renegade general in Libya just seized a Central Bank facility in the coastal city of Benghazi that houses a reported $US100 billion in cash and gold, according to the New York Times.

Libya’s ongoing civil war has split the country between an Islamist-supported central government based in Tripoli, and a rival nationalist administration held together by the renegade general Khalifa Hifter and based in the eastern city of Tobruk.

But the country had a couple of remaining bright spots, including Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, an oil industry positioned just across the Mediterranean Sea from western Europe, and a reported $US113 billion in foreign currency, according to Al Hayat.

This was down from the $US321 billion in reserves from before the country’s 2011 uprising, but was still enough to ensure that salaries would be paid and that the country’s oil infrastructure would continue to function.

Those reserves are diminishing quickly. Earlier this month, an oil facility in Es Sider burned for several days after being struck by an errant rocket, wiping out oil stocks equivalent to over 36 hours’ worth of nation-wide production. And today, Hiftar’s fighters seized the Libyan Central Bank’s Benghazi branch and its reported $US100 billion.

Libya FireStringer ./REUTERSThe fire in Es Sider in January of 2015. This hasn’t been a great month for Libya.

As David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times reported, the Central Bank was one of Libya’s last functioning public institutions. Its governor, Sadik el-Kabir, had traveled abroad to reassure foreign leaders of the integrity of the Libyan state during the ongoing crisis while the Bank has succeeded in paying out salaries and keep the country’s oil infrastructure functional. It’s also kept its headquarters in Tripoli, despite the Benghazi branch’s presence in the part of the country controlled by Hifter’s self-declared government.

Even so, Kirkpatrick explains, the Benghazi office had been considered to be outside of politics, and the various combatants in the city — which include a constellation of Islamist militias — had largely left the facility alone.

But on Thursday, Hifter’s militia seized the building from the Tripoli government-allied Islamists guarding it. According to the Times report, Hifter’s men haven’t ransacked the facility’s vaults yet, but have “posted video images online that appeared intended to show that they had not broken into the vaults, at least not yet,” according to the Times.

Hifter wants to let the government in Tripoli know that he could control the majority of the country’s remaining cash and gold reserves if he wanted to.

But in the process, he’s shown that there’s a highly vulnerable $US100 billion payoff sitting in the middle of Benghazi’s stateless vacuum.

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