July 27, 2011 / 2:33 PM / 8 years ago

INTERVIEW-Fuel, cash shortages threaten Tripoli life

GENEVA, July 27 (Reuters) - With little fuel and a shortage of banknotes, life in the Libyan capital is getting harder despite Tripoli avoiding some of the heavy bombardment seen in other parts of the country, a senior U.N. official said.

“What we have seen in Tripoli is the lack of fuel and the lack of cashflow are having a serious impact,” Laurence Hart, humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations, told Reuters by telephone from Cairo on Tuesday.

Hart, who led a one-week mission to Tripoli, said his team was able to move around without any restrictions, and officials were eager to provide information about the impact of sanctions, including at the central bank and the national oil company.

For the bank, one big problem was printing money or keeping up the supply.

“One boat that was carrying banknotes from the UK was prevented from coming in,” he said, adding that he believed NATO had turned it back.

“And then there is a problem that people have been running to the banks to withdraw their money, their savings. So now what they’ve put in place is a limited amount of cash withdrawal, which is around $175 per week per account holder.”

That limit had been in place for about a month, he said, although the central bank had imposed varying levels of withdrawal limits since the crisis began.

“At a certain point there was no possibility to withdraw, then they realised that situation was not tenable,” he said. Tripoli’s markets still had goods for sale, but prices were rising. Baby milk prices had doubled, Hart said.

“The situation is very, very volatile and very fragile,” he said. “We’re seeing paradoxically a situation whereby everything seems to be quite normal in Tripoli but on the other side there are evident signs of major problems that will turn up in the future irrespective of how the political situation develops.”

FOOD CRISIS?

Tripoli has been largely spared some of the worst of four months of NATO air strikes on pro-Gaddafi forces and the rebels have failed to make big gains towards Tripoli so far.

But Hart said there would be no chance of harvesting crops in the area this year or perhaps next year. Coupled with a lack of animal vaccines and fertilisers, that could cause a “serious food crisis”, he said.

But Marcal Izard, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said there were contingency plans, with food stockpiled in the Jordanian capital Amman.

“Even now if tens of thousands of people were really needing food we would be able to mobilise food supplies and non-food items such as tarpaulins and water trucks. At quick notice we can mobilise medical items if need be,” Izard said.

Hart said there was a lack of vaccines, fuel and medical staff, many of whom were foreign nationals who had fled the fighting, cutting hospital capacity to about 50 percent.

Foreign workers were even more important for the fishery sector, which was now running at about 5 percent capacity.

Authorities at the national oil company told Hart’s team they had enough crude oil to last 10 days to two weeks, but there was only one refinery, at Zawiyah, which is 40 km (25 miles) from Tripoli, available to turn that oil into fuel.

“They have an ability to refine only 5 percent of what they produce,” Hart said.

Fuel could come along the coastal road from Tunisia, which is under control of forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.

“If for any reason this supply line should be closed down, because it gets into the hands of the anti-government forces, that will constitute an immediate problem,” Hart said. Even if the supply route remained open, it was unclear how long the situation in Tripoli was sustainable, he said.

Hart said his team was now preparing for three basic scenarios: “Stalemate; a sudden fall of the regime as a result of a period of instability but a gradual pick-up in the situation; or the third scenario would be a quick resolution whereby following the fall of the regime there would be kind of anarchy or protracted difficulty in trying to mend the situation and bring it back to normal.” (Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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