US SPECIAL forces seized a tanker off Cyprus just after midnight on Sunday that had fled with a cargo of oil from a Libyan port, the US Department of Defence said, halting an attempt by rebels to sell petroleum on the global market.
Libyan rebels demanding a greater share of oil wealth managed to load crude onto the ship, which escaped Libya’s navy, embarrassing the government and prompting parliament to sack the prime minister.
US Navy SEALs boarded the Morning Glory tanker in international waters off Cyprus on Sunday night and took control of the vessel, which the Pentagon said was held by three armed Libyans.
A Cypriot police source said three men – described as two Israelis and a Senegalese – were detained for questioning on Saturday on suspicion of attempting to buy the tanker’s cargo, but were freed after a court refused to issue an arrest warrant.
Two of the men carried diplomatic passports – one from Senegal and one from a central African country, the security source said.
The source said they flew a Lear Jet into Cyprus on Friday evening, chartered a vessel from a yachting marina in Larnaca and headed to the tanker.
“They spoke to somebody on board the vessel, then left. At Larnaca marina police called them in for questioning,” the source said. The men left for Tel Aviv after being freed.
The tanker’s seizure by US forces is likely to prevent any more attempted oil sales by the rebels, who in August seized three export terminals accounting previously for 700,000 barrels a day of exports.
No one was hurt in the tanker raid, which was approved by US President Barack Obama and requested by the Libyan and Cypriot governments, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said.
“The Morning Glory is carrying a cargo of oil owned by the Libyan government National Oil Company. The ship and its cargo were illicitly obtained” from the Libyan port of Es Sider, his statement said.
The Cypriot ministry of foreign affairs said the vessel was heading west in the Mediterranean with a US military escort. It was parked 29 km southwest of Cyprus when the operation occurred around midnight Cyprus time.
The Pentagon statement said the vessel would be returned to a Libyan port.
The tanker’s escape highlighted the weakness of government forces, which had claimed several times that the 37,000-tonne ship was under their control only for the vessel to slip into international waters after a firefight.
Libya’s government faces a budget crisis as oil production has fallen to little over 200,000 barrels per day (bpd), from 1.4 million bpd in summer when a wave of protests at oilfields and ports started. Oil is the main source of revenues for the budget and to fund basic food imports. (Reuters)