Before dawn this morning a special forces team of Navy SEALs from the USS Roosevelt took control of an apparently stateless tanker that had illegally taken on oil at the Libyan port of Essider on March 8. The al Qaeda-linked Ansar al Sharia Libya has criticized the rebel seizure of Libyan oil ports as an invitation to foreign intervention.
The Pentagon said the raid was approved by President Barack Obama and that no one had been hurt, Reuters reported. The intervention had been requested by both the Libyan and the Cypriot governments after the renegade tanker Morning Glory moved into international waters near Cyprus. US military spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said that the tanker is now headed back to Libya with a team of sailors from the USS Stout aboard, according to Stars and Stripes.
The Libya Herald quoted an unnamed US official as saying the captain of the ship had asked the US to intervene as “the vessel had been boarded by force and … the crew was in danger.” Other reports stated, however, that the tanker had a crew of three Libyan rebels. After evading the Libyan navy, the tanker was spotted off the Egyptian coast before it was seen near Cyprus.
The tanker, which had been operating under an arrangement with an Egyptian company and was flying a North Korean flag until last week, when North Korea disowned any connection to it, is reported to be under Saudi ownership.
Cypriot authorities had been monitoring the tanker since they became aware of its presence near Cyprus late on the night of March 15, the Financial Mirror reported. Cypriot authorities detained three men who had chartered a boat from Larnaka to the tanker for the alleged purpose of purchasing 32,000 tonnes of crude oil. But they were released yesterday after a judge refused to issue warrants for their arrest. The men, said to be two Israelis and a Senegalese with two diplomatic passports among them, reportedly departed for Tel Aviv after their release.
The al Qaeda-linked Ansar al Sharia Libya denounced the dispute over the oil and called for the imposition of sharia law as a way to forestall future conflicts. In a message released on its Twitter account yesterday, titled “Statement from the Shariah Committee of Ansar al-Shariah about the Current Events Regarding the
Oil Ports,” the jihadist group said it “condemn[ed] any assault on the Muslims and their monies under the pretext of liberating the oil fields or protecting them from both sides,” according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which obtained and translated the statement.
Ansar al Sharia Libya warned that such actions “are giving the opportunity for the people of sedition, and the hypocrites, and the enemies of the Muslims to sow what they want … [which] increases the division between the Muslims, and this is what provides the opportunity for the West to intervene.” It further recommended that “both parties should withdraw from the areas of conflict and agree among themselves to solve this problem in accordance with Islamic Shariah.”
In a wide-ranging interview in the Libya Herald following his ouster last week by Libya’s General National Congress, former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan charged that the GNC had interfered with his orders for Libyan forces to recover the tanker. He also warned that the GNC had fallen under the control of Islamists, and that there are extremists among the federalists who have seized Libya’s oil ports. Furthermore, he said Libya has no responsive military despite the existence of a military payroll: “When you look at the salaries, there is an army, but when we call upon it, it is not there.”
This morning’s interception of the tanker was the second time in six months that the US military has intervened in Libya. In early October, US special forces seized wanted al Qaeda operative Abu Anas al Libi in Tripoli and brought him to the US to face terrorism charges.
Three years after the revolution that overthrew dictator Muammar Ghaddafi, Libya remains in a precarious state, with a burgeoning Islamist insurgency, no functioning military, a government wracked by power plays and the recent ouster of its prime minister, economic duress from the continuing rebel blockade of its eastern oil ports, and the ready availability of weapons from unmonitored stockpiles.