TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) - U.S. Navy SEALs seized an oil tanker off the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, stopping an attempt by a Libyan militia to sell the shipload of crude in defiance of the Libyan government. Supporters of the militia, which calls for autonomy for the eastern half of Libya, vowed Monday to try again to export oil again from the ports they control.
The attempted sale of the oil - Libya's most crucial resource - was a stark symbol of the weakness of Libya's central government, which has been unable to impose its authority over the North African nation since the ouster and killing of longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Power in the country has fragmented among multiple, heavily armed militias, most of them regionally based.
An eastern-based militia headed by a commander named Ibrahim Jedran seized a series of oil facilities in the east last summer, bringing Libya's output of 1.4 billion barrels a day to a trickle and gouging the government's biggest revenue source. Jedran is part of a movement seeking autonomy for the eastern half of Libya, known by the historical name of Cyrenaica, which has long complained of discrimination by governments in Tripoli. Last week, his militia loaded up a North Korean-flagged tanker with a load of oil worth $30 million at the port of al-Sidra, and the tanker succeeded in eluding pro-government forces and escaping to sea.
The tanker, Morning Glory, was seized late Sunday by U.S. Navy commandos in international waters off Cyprus, the Pentagon said in a statement. Rear Adm. John Kirby said no one was injured in the operation, which was approved by President Barack Obama.
The Morning Glory will return to Libya under the control of sailors from the USS Stout, it said. Cyprus' Foreign Ministry said the tanker was anchored some 18 nautical miles of its port of Limassol when it was captured. It is not known who the oil was to be sold to or who owns the tanker.
The attempted oil sale fueled a political crisis in Libya. The parliament, where Islamist lawmakers had a long rivalry with then-Prime Minister Ali Zidan, used the crisis to vote him out, saying it had underlined his weakness.
Libya's interim government said in a statement Monday that the oil cargo will be unloaded when it arrives in Libya. The crew is safe and will be dealt with in accordance with international law, it added. It thanked the United States and Cyprus and "all those who contributed" to the vessel's capture, adding, "Oil is the backbone of the national economy and tampering with it ... is unacceptable."
On her Twitter account, US Ambassador to Libya Deborah K. Jones wrote, "glad we were able to respond positively to Libya's request for help in preventing illegal sale of its oil on stateless ship."
The attempt to sell oil from the seized terminals was a first. In response, parliament mandated a group of militias to try to storm the oil facilities held by Jedran's group. The militias, led by fighters from the western city of Misrata, clashed with Jedran's fighters at the coastal city of Sirte, but parliament paused their offensive to give time for a mediated solution before they moved directly on the oil facilities.
Speaking by telephone from Ajdabiya, close to al-Sidra port, autonomy proponent Essam al-Jihani said his group is preparing to load a second tanker for export, although it was not possible to verify his claims. Al-Jihani belongs to the Cyrenaica Political Bureau, a body set up by Jedran and others in the autonomy movement with the aim of replacing the state oil company and distribute oil revenues more equitably to the east.
Jedran's group was also holding talks with tribal elders who are tried to mediate a peaceful resolution to the oil crisis. According to Libya al-Ahrar TV network, Abed Rabbo al-Barassi, the head of the Cyrenaica Executive Bureau, one of the bodies set up by Jedran's group, said that there will be no talks until the parliament withdraw its decision to form a military force to liberate the oil terminals.
The easterners have long complained of marginalization and discrimination under 42-year Gadhafi rule. Their sense of injustice increased even after the toppling of Gadhafi when they say their city descended into violence and with little government action in protecting the city.
As the tanker crisis appeared to come to an end, a car bomb struck just outside the gates of a military technical school in the eastern city of Benghazi, killing nine soldiers and wounding at least others, Libya's state news agency and officials said. Hours later, a second blast from a car bomb rocked a central district in the city, killing one person, a security official said.