International

Libyan government forces besiege N. Korea–flagged tanker

Report says the 41,000-ton Morning Glory is loaded with $36 million of crude oil

Employees of Oasis Libyan Oil picket outside the company's headquarters in Tripoli, Libya, saying their colleagues have been forced to work under duress at the al-Sidra oil terminal.
Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images

Libyan government forces and loyal militia fighters have besieged a North Korea-flagged tanker that a rival militia hoped to use to export oil in defiance of central authorities, officials said.

The tanker docked on Saturday at the eastern terminal of al-Sidra, one of three ports seized by rebels since August to press demands for autonomy and a bigger share of oil revenue. The newspaper al-Wasat said the ship was loaded with $36 million of crude.

The escalating conflict over the country's oil wealth is a sign of mounting chaos in Libya, where the government has failed to rein in fighters who helped oust veteran ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and who now defy state authority.

In Tripoli, workers at a state oil firm that runs al-Sidra port went on strike Sunday, urging the government to intervene because their colleagues at the port were under duress from armed protesters.

"We are very angry at what is happening at al-Sidra," said Salah Madari, an oil worker in the capital. "The port's control officer is being held at gunpoint," he said, adding that gunmen had also forced a pilot to guide the tanker into dock.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said on Saturday the military would bomb the nearly 41,000-ton Morning Glory if it tried to leave the port, one of Libya's biggest oil terminals.

Al-Amin and other government officials did not elaborate at a news conference, but Libyan news websites showed some small boats close to a tanker, which they said was the Morning Glory.

"Several navy boats have been dispatched. Now the tanker's movements are under complete control and nobody can move it," said Amin, who acts as informal government spokesman. "The tanker will stay where it is."

"All efforts are being undertaken to stop and seize the tanker, if necessary by a (military) strike, if it does not follow orders," he said, adding that state prosecutors would treat the loading of the crude as smuggling.

Libya has been trying to rebuild its army since Gaddafi's overthrow, but analysts say it is not yet a match for battle-hardened militias that fought in the eight-month uprising.

Renegade militias

Al-Sidra has been under militia control since the summer, slowing the country's oil output — once estimated at 1.6 million barrels a day — to a trickle.

The seizure of the terminals and attempted oil sales show Libya's security and economic woes which have piled up over the past two years since the toppling of Gaddafi in 2011.

Gaddafi's ouster left the country without a functioning government, as well as weak military and police forces. Successive interim governments have tried to rein in rebels by asking them to use them to maintain law and order. However, many of the militias serve their own interests and turned the country into fiefdoms.

For months, the Libyan government has been coaxing and threatening to use force against the eastern militias demanding greater self-rule and equal distribution of oil wealth among Libya's three historic regions. The militias also ask for an investigation into allegations of corruption marring oil sales.

The crisis has tested Libya's embattled Prime Minister Zeidan. He told reporters on Saturday that his government gave orders for the military to move against the tanker but they didn't follow orders.

Chief of Staff spokesman Gen. Ali al-Shekhli told a private Libyan TV network on Sunday that weather conditions prevented the forces from moving. However, he added that naval forces stopped the same tanker as it tried to enter al-Sidra last week.

The country's prosecutor general has issued an arrest warrant for the tanker captain and its crew members while ordered the tanker be confiscated.

Wire services

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