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Libyan 'force' goes after threatened oil tanker in rebel-held port

By Jomana Karadsheh and Greg Botelho, CNN
March 9, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: A U.S. official says the illicit loading oil "amounts to theft from the Libyan people"
  • Ministers: "Force" is tasked with dealing with a North Korean-flagged ship at rebel-held port
  • Naval officers, "revolutionaries" have OK to "stop, seize or even strike" ship, minister says
  • Libya hasn't been able to profit from its immense oil resources due to instability

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- "A force" has been mobilized by the Libyan government to "seize" a North Korean-flagged ship that's been docked for days in a rebel-held port, despite a threat by Libya's leader that it might be bombed.

Two Libyan ministers told reporters Sunday that the "force" consists of "qualified" naval officers and "revolutionaries," or former rebels now being paid by the government.

It has authorization "to stop, seize or even strike (the oil tanker) with force if it does not comply with the orders issued for it," said Culture Minister Habibi al-Amin.

"The aim is to receive this tanker, according to the law, without causing any casualties or damage," said Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani, calling on those involved to surrender. "We hope this happens."

The vessel, dubbed Morning Glory, docked late Friday night in the oil port of As-Sidra.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said Saturday that the ship's captain subsequently was warned by phone to comply with government orders or face the consequences. The captain responded that local militia onboard did not allow them to depart.

Zeidan threatened to bomb the oil tanker if it didn't comply with Libya's request. On Sunday, al-Amin echoed the prime minister's concerns that a bombing could cause a large oil spill and said the "force" focused on the issue "realizes the sensitivity of the situation and the risks."

"They are dealing with (this) in kind of a surgical method," said the cultural minister, noting that one option may be to lead the tanker to an area where more Libyan government forces can safely seize it.

The U.S. State Department weighed in Sunday, with spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressing concern about Morning Glory "loading a cargo of illicitly obtained oil."

"This action is counter to law and amounts to theft from the Libyan people," Psaki said.

The situation speaks to the unsettled situation in the North African nation, which the government is struggling to control more than two years after the ouster of longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

In this case, the issue centers around the oil-rich eastern part of the country and one man in particular, Ibrahim Jadran. The militia leader was entrusted by the government to safeguard crucial oil ports. But last July, Jadran and his men seized them, blocking oil exports, and demanded more autonomy and shared revenues for his eastern region.

Meet the man holding Libya's oil hostage

"We used to be part of that government until the corruption became so visible, and the government started to sell oil without measuring units, and after we became certain that such a government is not credible and unable to rebuild the state," Jadran, 32, told CNN's Christiane Amanpour in January. "That's why we declared independence of our province and we started to seek our fair rights."

There is a lot at stake, given the Libyan government's precarious state and the wealth of natural resources in the country. Libya is thought to have Africa's largest proven oil reserves. The country produced 1.6 million barrels per day after the revolution only to have that output slow to a relative trickle of fewer than 200,000 barrels per day by the end of last year.

The government has said the disrupted oil production, from the seizures of ports as well as protests and strikes at other oil facilities, is costing the country $130 million a day.

The oil at the center of the current As-Sidra situation belongs to Libya's National Oil Corporation and its partners, which Psaki from the State Department notes includes U.S. companies.

"Any oil sales without authorization from these parties places purchasers at risk of exposure to civil liability, penalties and other possible sanctions," Psaki said.

The threat of force against the North Korean-flagged vessel isn't the first time Libya's government has threatened force against ships that enter the eastern oil ports.

On several occasions, authorities have issued ultimatums to such ships, only to have those deadlines come and go with no action.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh reported from Libya and CNN's Greg Botelho reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Jamie Crawford contributed to this report.

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