Libya's Defense Ministry has authorized force to stop a North Korean-flagged tanker from taking crude oil from a rebel port. The prime minister has warned separatists loading the tanker that the vessel could be bombed.
On Sunday, the Defense Ministry announced that it had issued orders for military action to the armed forces, the official Lana news agency reported. Culture Minister Amin al-Habib said that Libya had deployed navy ships at sea to stop the tanker from leaving port.
"The tanker cannot leave any more, or it will be turned into a pile of metal," Habib said on Sunday.
The government insists that the ship leaves without any oil being loaded aboard, while the rebels say it is their right to sell the crude, and distribute the revenue generated themselves.
Demanding autonomy in eastern regions and a share in oil revenues, rebels who turned against Libya's authorities after toppling the dictator Muammar Gadhafi in the 2011 uprising have blockaded oil terminals that the government had entrusted them with guarding. The oil fallout represents just the latest challenge for Libya's fragile young government.
'Act of piracy'
Under heavy guard on Saturday, rebels began loading oil onto the 37,000-ton Morning Glory tanker docked at Al-Sidra terminal. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan ordered them to stop and threatened to bomb the tanker, and Oil Minister Omar Shakmak accused the separatists of an "act of piracy."
Zeidan told a news conference on Saturday that Libya's attorney general had given the order to stop the ship. The prime minister said that authorities had told the vessel's captain to leave Libya's waters, but added that armed gunmen on board had prevented him from setting sail without the oil on board.
"All parties must respect Libyan sovereignty," Zeidan said. "If the ship does not comply, it will be bombed."
Those threats escalated on Sunday, when the Defense Ministry ordered the chief of staff, the navy and the air force "to deal with the tanker that entered Libyan waters without a prior permit from the legitimate authorities," Lana reported. As the news emerged, National Oil Corporation spokesman Mohamed al-Harairi reported that the Morning Glory remained inside the harbor with loading under way.
Harairi said he expected the operation to continue until the end of Sunday, noting that the ship could take up to 350,000 barrels of crude oil. The local newspaper al-Wasat reported that the tanker had loaded $36 million (26 million euros) of crude.
Separatist movement's demands
Abd Rabbo al-Barassi, a leading figure in the self-declared Cyrenacia region, said the separatists were "asserting" their rights to oil revenues needed by the "Libyan people" because the central government had "failed" to do so. He said the oil revenue from al-Sidra would be "shared" among Libya's three main regions.
"We are not defying the government or the parliament," Barassi said. "But we are insisting on our rights."
Separatists in eastern Libya want the restoration of autonomy granted when the country first gained independence in 1951. The region was the starting point of the revolt that toppled the late-strongman Muammar Gadhafi in 2011.
The battles over oil exports began last July, when security guards shut down key terminals and accused authorities of corruption. In January, the navy prevented two tankers from docking at al-Sidra to take on crude.
The dispute led to a fall in exports, with the Economy Ministry estimating the losses at over $9 billion. Oil represents a key source of revenue for Libya, and, following the blockade of terminals, production plunged to about 250,000 barrels per day from 1.5 million.
(Reuters, AFP, AP)