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Nato dismisses Libya oil claims

Nato has dismissed Libyan claims that Britain struck the North African country's largest oil field, blaming Muammar Gaddafi's forces for the attacks that halted production.

The eastern Sarir and Messla fields came under fire just as the rebels had sold their first oil cargo in weeks. The Equator, a Liberian-flagged tanker that can transport up to a million barrels of oil, left the eastern port of Tobruk late on Wednesday en route to Singapore, oil and shipping officials said.

Libya's deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim told reporters on Wednesday that "British war planes" struck Sarir, killing three guards and wounding other workers while also damaging field equipment and an oil pipeline. He did not say why he specified Britain, which is part of the Nato air campaign.

But Nato said it had been monitoring the Sarir oil fields over the past week and that attacks by pro-Gaddafi forces had resulted in a number of skirmishes and at least one fire at an oil facility.

"We are aware that pro-Gaddafi forces have attacked this area in recent days," said Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, who commands the allied operation. "To try and blame it on Nato shows how desperate this regime is."

Lt Gen Bouchard said in a statement that alliance planes had not bombed the region because Gaddafi's forces were not threatening any civilian population centre there.

Earlier on Wednesday, rebel spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga said armoured vehicles attacked Messla on Monday and Tuesday, and then Sarir on Wednesday. The two fields are in the massive Sirte Basin region, which holds roughly 80% of Libya's 46.4 billion barrels in proven reserves of conventional crude oil.

The shipment from Tobruk marks a milestone for the officials in Benghazi who have been steadily courting the international community in a bid to win firmer backing in their fight against Gaddafi. Their hopes for continued exports, at least in the short-term, were dealt a blow after the attacks on the 12 billion barrel Sarir field, the country's largest, and the three billion barrel Messla field forced a halt in production.

Meanwhile, Nato is investigating rebel claims that Nato air strikes hit their fighters on the front lines and touched off a retreat from the outskirts of the key oil port of Brega.

Several militiamen fleeing back toward rebel-held Ajdabiya in eastern Libya said they saw several of their tanks destroyed by apparent Nato bombing runs. Dozens of vehicles were seen racing from the front lines today, including ambulances and rebel vehicles outfitted with weapons.

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