Rockets rain on Libyan power plant as militias battle

By Ulf Laessing and Feras Bosalum TRIPOLI (Reuters) - More than 100 rockets fired in clashes between rival government-paid militia have knocked out a power plant in southern Libya, heightening the risk of summer blackouts, the electricity minister said on Tuesday. "This is the chaos Libya lives in," the visibly-annoyed minister, Ali Mohammed Muhairiq, told a televised news conference. "The plant was hit by dozens of rockets, by 120 rockets. I don't know whether we will be able to repair it before summer and Ramadan." The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan begins at the end of June this year. Libya, an OPEC oil producer, suffers frequent blackouts in summer due to heavy use of air-conditioners. Muhairiq said the power station in Sarir, in the remote south, had been put out of action by days of fighting between militias on the payroll of the defense and interior ministries. He said parliament had approved a loan for the repairs, since the government had no budget to meet the bill of up to 300 million Libyan dinars ($242 million), but gave no details. Libya's official news agency LANA said the central bank would lend the state electricity company 1 billion dinars "to help solve the difficulties it faces". Budget worries are mounting in Libya, where protests and blockades at oil fields and ports have choked state revenue. The government has sought to co-opt unruly militias that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi three years ago by putting them on the payroll of the security forces, but they remain loyal to their own commanders who often have business interests such as smuggling and who vie with other groups for local power. Some are heavily armed with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns obtained from military depots during the NATO-backed uprising in 2011. Muhairiq said militia fighting had also damaged oil facilities and power stations on which hospitals and water supplies in the eastern city of Benghazi depend. In separate violence, gunmen stole equipment from a power station in Khoms, east of Tripoli, which supplies the capital and western Libya, Muhairiq said. "I warn the gunmen against damaging it," he said, reading out names of those he believed were behind the robbery. Libya's oil output has fallen to 230,000 barrels per day (bpd) from 1.4 million bpd last year when various groups began disrupting facilities to back political and financial demands. The government said on Sunday it had curbed spending at several ministries because the 2014 budget had been delayed. "We face a very big danger," Mohammed Abdallah, head of the parliamentary budget committee, told LANA, saying the government had already incurred a deficit of 3.785 billion dinars in the first two months of 2014. No comparative figures were available. He said the budget planned for spending of 68.6 billion dinars in the next six months, around 2 billion more than last year, with 27.1 billion going on public sector wages, 6 billion more than in 2013. The government increased salaries for oil workers by 67 percent in January in what has so far proved a futile attempt to placate them and discourage them from joining protests. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said the government had submitted a budget proposal for six months instead of the whole year because it only had a temporary mandate. A parliamentary election is expected this year. ($1 = 1.2415 Libyan dinars) (Reporting by Ulf Laessing, Feras Bosalum and Ghaith Shennib; Editing by Alistair Lyon)