U.S. Navy SEALs seize fugitive oil tanker

<i>This post has been updated. See the note below for details.</i>

CAIRO — U.S. Navy SEALs seized control of an oil tanker that had illegally taken on a cargo of crude oil peddled by rebels in Libya who had earlier captured key oil ports, the U.S. military announced early Monday.

The seaborne raid, staged off of the Cypriot coast, came at the behest of the governments of Libya and Cyprus, the Pentagon said in a statement.

“No one was hurt tonight when U.S. forces … boarded and took control of the commercial tanker Morning Glory,” the statement said.

The SEAL team, backed by helicopters, launched its operation late Sunday local time from the U.S. guided missile destroyer Roosevelt, the Pentagon said.


The episode marked the latest chaotic turn of events for Libya, which has been plagued by turmoil in the nearly three years since the oil-rich North African nation rose up against longtime dictator Moammar Kadafi. A weak central government has been struggling to maintain some semblance of control, while powerful militias, some them tribally based, have tried to fill the power vacuum.

Among the most high-profile of the armed groups is that of Ibrahim Jathran, whose forces engineered the illicit oil sale. He and other groups in eastern Libya’s have demanded autonomy and a greater share of oil revenues. But their months-long blockade of key ports had reduced oil output to a trickle.

The North Korean-flagged tanker had sailed last week from the Libyan port of Es Sedr, following ineffectual threats from Libya’s deposed Prime Minister Ali Zeidan to use force to prevent it from leaving. Zeidan was ousted by lawmakers hours after the vessel left the port, with Defense Minister Abullah Al-Thini stepping in as his interim replacement. Zeidan, who left Libya, said Parliament’s move against him was invalid.

[Update, 8:05 a.m. PDT, March 17: Libya’s leadership may now face a backlash for seeking U.S. assistance in dealing with the oil theft. A furor erupted in October when American commandos seized a senior Al Qaeda member known as Anas al-Liby in Tripoli. At the time, the Libyan government publicly demanded an explanation and called the capture a “kidnapping.”


This time, the official LANA news agency reported the tanker raid simply by citing the Pentagon statement, without any immediate comment from Libyan officials regarding the U.S. assertion that American help had been asked for.

However, a few hours before the action was made public, Libya’s minister of justice made a statement that seemed aimed at preparing the public for the news. The minister, Salah Merghani, told journalists in the eastern city of Benghazi that the tanker’s journey was being closely monitored, and that the U.S. and the European Union were “clear in their stance” that the oil sale by the rebels and the tanker’s departure had contravened international law.]

The tanker was being brought back to Libya, the Pentagon said -- presumably to a port under the control of government forces. The rebels who months ago took control of eastern Libya’s main oil ports and other installations had announced their intention to sell the oil on the black market.

The Morning Glory’s cargo was estimated to be worth about $36 million, money that Libya’s government said belonged to the Libyan people. North Korea said the flagging of the vessel had been in error, and said it had no connection with its owners.


Twitter: @laurakingLAT