TRIPOLI, Libya — The Libyan government on Monday thanked the United States for a Navy SEALs operation that stopped a North Korean-flagged oil tanker from exporting crude loaded onto it by an autonomy-seeking eastern militia.
The SEALs took control of the Morning Glory late Sunday while it was in international waters near 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.
It said that the tanker will return to Libya under the control of sailors from the USS Stout. It was not clear which Libyan port the vessel was sailing for. North Korea says it has nothing to do with the ship.
The vessel, whose ownership remains a mystery, sparked political tension in the country after it sailed away with a cargo worth more than 30 million dollars from the port of al-Sidra, in eastern Libya, despite government attempts to seize it. The parliament, which had a long rivalry with then-Prime Minister Ali Zidan, used the crisis to vote him out, saying it had underlined his weakness.
The port is among three of the country’s largest oil terminals, which since last summer have been seized by rebels who demand greater autonomy and equal distribution of oil revenues among the country’s three historic regions.
Cyprus is monitoring the tanker, which had been anchored some 18 nautical miles off its southern coastal town of Limassol when U.S. special forces took control, its Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Adding that the ship was now sailing “in a westward direction” with a U.S. Navy escort.
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.
“The interim government thanks and appreciates all who contributed to this work … especially international partners, above all the governments of the United States and the Republic of Cyprus,” the government said in a statement, adding: “the oil is the backbone of the national economy and tampering with it … is unacceptable.”
On her Twitter account, U.S. 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.”
Since the downfall of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Libya has struggled to rein in unruly militias, most of which stem from the rebellion that overthrew him.
The attempt to sell oil from the seized terminals was a first, a daring move made by an eastern militia led by former rebel fighter named Ibrahim Jedran, who controls the most vital terminals for the country’s so-called Oil Crescent. He is a founding member of a body known as the Cyrenaica Political Bureau, named after Libya’s eastern region, which aims to replace the state oil company and distribute revenues more equitably itself.
Bureau member Essam al-Jihani on Monday said the tanker incident had drawn international attention to the region’s cause. Speaking by telephone from Ajdabiya, close to al-Sidra port, he said his group is preparing to load a second tanker for export, although it was not possible to verify his claims.
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.
The first car bomb, which was loaded with explosives, went off as cadets were leaving after an inauguration ceremony, the LANA news agency reported. It said the explosion tore the facade off shops and destroyed several cars in the area.
Bodies of the slain officers and the wounded were taken to the Benghazi Medical Center, security and medical officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. Initial reports had said that 14 people were wounded in the bombing, but disparate figures are common in the immediate aftermath of large attacks.
Benghazi, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising that led to Gadhafi’s downfall, has seen a sharp rise in attacks and assassinations targeting military and police troops. The city was the scene of a brazen militant attack on the U.S. Consulate on Sept. 11, 2012 which left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Assassins kill former officers, judges, and activists on a near daily basis in Libya’s east, which includes Benghazi and the Islamist-stronghold of Darna.