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Recent airstrikes on vessels and ports – part of ongoing clashes between rival governments – have resulted in Libya again being classed as a war-zone by shipping insurers, forcing operators already struggling in the face of a drastic drop in imports to Libya to suspend services.

“Insurance companies are putting an extra war-risk surcharge, which is quite high and hard to recover from the market,” Loris Trevisan, chief executive of Italian operator Med Cross Lines, told The Loadstar.

“Some cargo is still moving, but the volumes are at minimum levels.”

Poor cargo demand had prevented Med Cross Lines from calling at Tripoli Port for months, he said, but it had continued to serve Misrata until a series of airstrikes on the city made it too dangerous to send ships there.

The company has suspended all its Libya services, Trevisan said, “until the situation is better and security for our ships and crew will be granted”. Med Cross is refocusing on more stable North African markets, such as Algeria and Egypt.

Turkish operator Sana Lines also suspended operations to Libya following the airstrikes, which were carried out by the Libyan National Army (LNA), operating under the internationally recognised government now based in the east of the country.

Two vessels in the east of Libya were hit by the LNA in January – a Greek tanker off the coast of Derna and a vessel allegedly carrying fuel supplies to militias occupying Benghazi Port. The Libyan Air Force then announced that any vessel or cargo ship approaching Misrata Port, could be targeted.

“We used to have 20-25 ships at anchor every day, waiting to berth, but now there are four or five maximum – sometimes none at all, especially since the air attacks,” one Misrata Port employee said.

“Because insurers consider Libya a war zone, charters don’t want to send their ships here anymore.”

Although smaller companies are temporarily pulling out of a once-lucrative market, larger companies continue to serve Libya’s ports.

“CMA CGM vessels currently call at the ports of Tripoli, Khoms and Misrata, where CMA CGM carries on business in strict compliance with applicable economic sanctions and embargoes,” a spokesperson for the French carrier said.

“Our group’s experts closely monitor the situation in the country and will adapt accordingly.”

The country’s ports, however, remain a shadow of their former selves. Once a hub of activity, with an average of 10 vessels at anchor every day, the approach to Tripoli is now devoid of waiting ships.

“Quite a lot of cargo bound for Tripoli and western Libya is now being shipped to Tunisian ports and then moved by truck to Libya,” Mr Trevisan explained.

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Trucks line up at the Tunisia-Libya border, waiting to bring cargo to Tripoli and Misrata

Ongoing fighting and port closures have also left a backlog of Libya-bound cargo in European ports.

“Some cargo destined for Benghazi has been stuck in transit in an Italian port for months,” a senior shipping source said.

Benghazi Port has been closed for months due to the ongoing conflict and partial occupation of the port by militias. Containers initially held up some four months ago when heavy fighting around the port first broke out remain there, taking up valuable storage space. Since delivery could no longer be guaranteed, the shipping line had since stopped accepting any Libya-bound cargo, he said.

For those operators still operating or hoping to restart operations, it is not only the security situation that presents a problem. The existence of rival governments –  one based in Tripoli, the other, internationally-recognised, in the eastern town of Beida – had also created confusion, Sana Lines’ Mehmet Alioglu said.

“They have two government authorities now and we don’t know which one is the authorised government,” he explained. “The government which manages the Benghazi and Tobruk region controls all incoming containerised cargo from Turkey. And also they can arrest the vessel.”

If the political situation did not improve, serving the Libyan market would mean deploying separate services, Trevisan explained. “Combining all Libyan ports at this moment could be a serious problem for shipping operators.”

Med Cross Lines was hoping to restart operations later this month with two such separate services, he said. One would serve ports in the west, including Tripoli and Misrata, and a second service would call at the eastern ports of Tobruk and Benghazi.

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