The hazardous security situation in Libya has been underscored by the killings of a British man and a woman from New Zealand, who were found shot dead on a beach where they had gone for a picnic near an oil and gas plant west of Tripoli.
A Libyan security official said that the Briton, born in 1965, and the New Zealander, born in 1967, had been found on Thursday lying face down on the beach with gunshot wounds to their heads.
“It doesn’t look like a robbery because there was no break-in at their Toyota car parked nearby. It was left untouched until we came,” the official told Reuters, declining to be named. “We found the bullets,” he added.
Both victims worked for Blue Energy, an oilfield maintenance firm, and had been driving in a Tripoli-registered car to Mellitah, 60 miles (100km) west of Tripoli.
The New Zealand foreign affairs ministry released a statement on Saturday saying the dead woman had been visiting the country and was normally resident in New Zealand. It said details of the deaths were still unclear.
The attack is the first time a Briton has been targeted and killed in Libya since the removal of Muammar Gaddafi more than two years ago.
The media centre at the nearby town of Sabratha posted a photograph on its Facebook page showing the bodies of a man and woman face down in the sand on either side of a picnic blanket. The authenticity of the picture, which had been taken at night apparently by the light of a car’s headlamps, could not immediately be confirmed.
The local authorities in Sabratha issued a public statement condemning the killings, but the motive remained unclear. According to local reports, nothing appeared to have been taken from their bags. Their picnic spot was close to a oil and gas complex at Mellitah co-owned by Italy’s ENI and Libya’s state-owned National Oil Company, which exports natural gas to Italy through the Greenstream pipeline.
A blockade on the complex imposed by local Berber militia had been lifted last month after negotiations in which the Berbers, known locally as the Amazigh, had been promised benefits from its hydrocarbon exports.
Libya has in recent months suffered a serious setback in security, as rival militia hold sway in their self-styled fiefs while the central government in Tripoli struggles to impose itself.
The killings also came on the same day as the government in Tripoli declared it would resume oil production at one of the country’s largest oilfields, El Sharara, south of Tripoli, following the resolution of another blockade by a militia, in this case aligned with local Tuareg tribes.
“We are deeply saddened by the murder of a British national and New Zealander in Libya. Police have informed their families and consular officials are providing full consular support in Libya and the UK,” a spokesman for the British Foreign Office said.
“We call upon the Libyan government to carry out a thorough investigation in to this tragic incident and to continue to do all it can to bring to justice the perpetrators of this appalling crime, as it strives to build strong rule of law in Libya.”
A New Zealand foreign ministry spokesman told Reuters: “We are working with the relevant authorities to confirm this. The bodies have not yet been formally identified and the next of kin have not yet been informed.”
Speculation in Libya suggested the execution-style murders were carried out by jihadists determined to prevent the revival of the oil and gas industry on which the beleagured state depends for more than 90% of its income and which has been largely crippled since the Gaddafi’s fall. The government is estimated to be missing out on a billion dollars a week in potential export revenue.
“The only people who randomly kill foreigners are the jihadists. These extreme tactics are being used by the Islamists at a time the population is turning against them and the government is trying to break free. When they don’t know how to cut a pipeline, killing westerners is an easier way of keeping foreign investors away.”
The prospects of the killers being identified and of security being improved are undermined by the continuing anarchic conditions across post-Gaddafi Libya in which different localities are controlled by communal militias while peace and oil production is only maintained by local deals and pay-offs by the Tripoli government led by prime minister, Ali Zeidan, and the oil companies themselves.
“This is part of a larger trend of extortion,” Pack said.
“The ‘political’ agenda of these groups is merely a veneer for extortion. The Libyan government finds itself in a conundrum because it has practised appeasement and scrambled to meet the demands of the militias. It has laid down deadlines threatened to use force but has never carried out those threats.”
Almost three years after the first ruler was ousted in the Arab spring, gains across the region appear more and more negligible.
Egypt has reverted to quasi-military rule and violence on the streets – six more people died on Friday in clashes between riot police and Islamists. Syria is mired in civil war.
Only Tunisia, which began voting on a new constitution on Friday, can point to firm gains, though even there division between Islamists and secularists have threatened to dismantle the democratic process.