Libya's Ras Lanuf refinery loads first tanker since unrest began
* Ras Lanuf exporting cargo of kerosene
* Almost 20 crude oil, product tankers waiting near ports
* Refinery running on crude in storage, oifields down
LONDON, Aug 16 (Reuters) - Libya's largest refinery on Friday loaded its first petroleum products tanker since labour unrest hit the oil sector nearly three weeks ago but protests still throttled the country's vital crude oil exports, shipping sources said.
The tanker Cape Benat began loading kerosene, used for jet fuel, early on Friday at the Ras Lanuf refinery, which also produces high-sulphur diesel. The ship was expected to head for Italy.
Pay strikes and other protests at Libya's two largest ports as well as oilfields have pushed crude oil output and exports, the lifeblood of the north African OPEC member's economy, to the lowest levels since the civil war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Shipping sources said crude loading remained halted by striking security guards at Ras Lanuf, the second biggest sea terminal, but products loading from the refinery is separate.
"The vessel was loading kerosene, started at around 1 a.m." a shipping source with direct knowledge of the situation said.
According to maritime analyst Windward, another products tanker, the Minerva Julie, was making its way into port to pick up products from the Ras Lanuf refinery.
State-owned National Oil Corp. (NOC) had hoped the largest terminal, Es Sider, would resume crude oil exports by the end of this week but deputy oil minister Omar Shakmak said on Thursday these prospects had faded.
The exports that continue are mainly from the port of Zawiya in the west while Mellitah is due to resume soon, once enough oil from previously halted oilfields accumulates, traders said.
On Thursday, Libya's government said it would use all means, including military force if necessary, to prevent the guards at the main ports from carrying out plans to sell oil independently of the NOC.
Libya's oil output has been slashed to just 500,000-600,000 barrels per day compared with production capacity of 1.6 million bpd, representing over 1.5 percent of global oil demand and its loss has propped up international oil prices.
There were nearly 20 tankers waiting to load crude oil and collect or deliver oil products near Libya's blocked ports.
The 220,000 barrels per day Ras Lanuf refinery, which is operated by Lerco, a joint venture between NOC and UAE's Al Ghurair group, is running on crude oil from storage because the oilfields that feed it have been nearly completely shut down.
Arabian Gulf Oil Company (AGOCO) produces the Sarir and Mesla grades, which feed the refinery, but output has been hit by oilfield protests as well as power supply problems. Only the Mesla oilfield is still going at a rate of some 10,000 bpd, Shakmak said on Thursday.
One source close to the matter said that Lerco planned to bring in a shipment of chemical components to restart its production of liquefied petroleum gas products.
Traders said NOC awarded a tender, issued on Aug. 5, to supply the country with 75,000-100,000 tonnes per month of 0.1 percent sulphur gasoil - high sulphur diesel - from October through January 2014. Details of the winners had not yet emerged.
(Reporting by Julia Payne, additional reporting by Ron Bousso; Editing by Anthony Barker)