A team of U.S. Navy SEALs boarded an oil tanker Sunday night in the Mediterranean Sea in an apparent bid to prevent the delivery of Libyan crude worth several million dollars that members of a militia had been attempting to sell, according to U.S. and Libyan officials.
In an operation approved by President Obama, the SEALs commandeered the commercial tanker Morning Glory shortly after 10 p.m. Eastern time and were en route overnight to a Libyan port, Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. No one was hurt during the operation, he said.
Libya’s fledgling government had strongly opposed the sale of oil by a militia in eastern Libya and at one point threatened to bomb the tanker, which it said at the time was a North Korean-flagged vessel. When it set sail last week, outraged lawmakers ousted Prime Minister Ali Zeidan through a no-confidence vote and installed the country’s defense minister as interim leader. Zeidan had become deeply unpopular for failing to rein in the militias that emerged during Libya’s 2011 civil war.
In a statement Monday, the Libyan government said its initial efforts to seize control of the ship had failed because of “bad weather and inadequate resources.”
The dispute over the ship underscored the weakness of the Libyan government and the extent to which the Obama administration is willing to use military force to support an oil-rich nation still reeling from the aftermath of its civil war.
“The Libyan Interim Government confirms that the sale of Libyan oil is the main source of national income and any illegal removal will not be tolerated,” the Libyan government said. The statement credited the United States and Cyprus with helping stop the shipment.
The ship’s crew, the Pentagon statement said, was “safe and well” and would be “dealt with according to international and national law.”
The Pentagon said the SEALs used the USS Roosevelt as a staging platform for the mission and described the tanker as a “stateless ship” when the SEALs boarded it.
The U.S. statement said that prior to the SEALs’ boarding, the master of the ship had reported that the vessel had been “boarded by force” and that the “crew was in danger.”
“We don’t want to live in a world where armed individuals or groups are able to seize vessels, threaten people’s lives and sell stolen cargo for their own financial gain,” the statement said. “This was a stateless vessel on the high seas that was not flying under a flag recognized by any nation.”
Pentagon officials said the ship is expected to arrive in Libya within four days. The ship was sailing under the authority of 25 U.S. sailors assigned to the destroyer USS Stout. Three Libyan men aboard the ship were in U.S. custody, but it remained unclear where or whether they would be prosecuted. As they secured the ship, the SEALs found two AK-47 assault rifles, the Pentagon statement said.
In the eastern city of Benghazi, a prominent businessman said the overnight raid sparked outrage among Libyans who have sought greater autonomy from the state and whose sense of disenfranchisement dates to the era of rule by Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi.
“The people are saying that the United States betrayed us, and we thought it was our partner,” said Fathallah Bin Ali, an associate of Ibrahim al-
Jathran, leader of a federalist militia that was attempting to sell the oil.
Jathran and his allies accuse the post-revolutionary government of neglecting the east, where the bulk of the country’s oil and gas wealth is located. His militia seized key eastern oil terminals last summer in an effort to force Tripoli to give eastern Libyans greater control over oil sales, which are handled by a state-run company and ministry based in Tripoli.
The U.S. operation could alienate an eastern Libyan faction that has remained relatively friendly to the United States in an atmosphere of growing Islamist extremism. Bin Ali, a Benghazi resident who was a friend of J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador who was killed in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post there, said the seizure of the tanker left some Libyans feeling angry.
The operation showed that the United States is first and foremost “a capitalist country” that had abandoned its friends, he said. “They believe that crude is more sacred than blood,” he added.
A series of explosions struck Benghazi on Monday, further underscoring the lawlessness in Libya’s eastern region. The first blast, caused by a powerful car bomb, killed at least eight people outside a graduation ceremony for new soldiers, the Reuters news agency reported. At least two other explosions elsewhere in the city wounded more than a dozen people, residents said.
The United States is among the nations that impose sanctions on North Korea, a nuclear-armed state that routinely threatens to attack neighboring South Korea and Western nations. Reports that the ship was a North Korean-flagged vessel led to speculation that the oil was destined for Pyongyang, although North Korea denied that it was behind the purchase.
The United States protested Sunday after reports that Pyongyang had test-fired 25 short-range missiles. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called on North Korea to “refrain from provocative actions that aggravate tensions.”
Hauslohner reported from Beirut.