CAIRO — U.S. Navy SEALs took control of a rogue ship illegally loaded with Libyan crude oil early Monday in Mediterranean waters off the coast of Cyprus, ending a crisis that led to the ouster of the country’s prime minister and highlighted the inability of Libya’s central government to protect its most valued assets.
It was the most overt U.S. military intervention on behalf of the fragile Libyan government since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi two and a half years ago and came at a time when authorities in Tripoli have never appeared weaker.
The Pentagon said no one was hurt in the operation, which it announced at around 2:30 a.m. in Washington.
The Pentagon said three armed men had been taken into custody aboard the vessel, the commercial tanker Morning Glory, but did not say whether the men would be handed over to the Libyan government. A Libyan government statement said that the ship’s crew was “safe and well” and “would be dealt with in accordance to international and national law,” but it made no mention of the armed men and it was not clear what had happened to them.
The Libyan government said its Navy “and other forces” had tried to capture the ship “but faced challenges owing to bad weather and inadequate resources.”
“The government expresses its appreciation to all countries who participated in this operation which took place to enforce the sovereign will of the Libyan nation,” the statement said. “In particular, it wishes to thank the United States of America and the Republic of Cyprus.”
President Obama approved the operation at 10 p.m. EDT Sunday or 4 a.m. local time Monday, the Pentagon statement said.
In the Pentagon statement, spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said U.S. forces undertook the operation was undertaken at the request of both the Libyan and Cypriot governments. It referred to the Morning Glory as “stateless,” meaning it was not registered in any country, allowing the United States to move without gaining any other government’s permission.
When the Morning Glory’s presence was first noted in Libyan waters earlier this month, it was flying the North Korean flag. But after Libya complained, North Korea denied that it had been registered there legally.
“The SEAL team embarked and operated from the guided missile destroyer USS Roosevelt (DDG-80),” the Pentagon statement said. “USS Roosevelt provided helicopter support and served as a command and control and support platform for the other members of the force assigned to conduct the mission.”
The statement did not specify how many Americans were involved in the early morning operation. It said a team of sailors from the USS Stout had boarded the ship and would “be supervising” its return to an unidentified Libyan port.
The tanker episode marked the biggest crisis to strike Libya’s central government since Gadhafi’s overthrow and was the latest sign of the ongoing hostility between that government and the militias that came together to battle Gadhafi in 2011.
Since then, the militias have refused all entreaties to surrender their weapons, and the central government has proved incapable of asserting its authority over them.
Anti-government militias have repeatedly targeted the nation’s oil sector to raise money for their operations, but their loading of the 21,000-ton Morning Glory was a particularly egregious example. The government warned the vessel not to depart Es Sider -- one of three major export terminals the government has lost to rebels in the last year -- but the vessel slipped away anyway.
Where it was headed when it was seized was not known. The ship reportedly was spotted off the Egyptian coast as recently Thursday and there were reports the crew on board were Egyptian nationals. The Cyprus News, citing the Cypriot ministry of foreign affairs, reported Monday morning that the vessel was parked 18 miles southwest of Cyrus when the U.S. military conducted it operation.
In response to the tanker seizure, last week members of the General National Congress, Libya’s legislature, removed Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in a no-confidence vote. The government named Abdullah Thinni its caretaker prime minister. But he will be in the post for only another 10 days, during which the Parliament is expected to find a longer-term solution.
There was little immediate sign that U.S. intervention on behalf of the central government would discourage armed militias from continuing to press their demands for autonomy and a greater share of oil revenues. Abd-Rabbo al-Barassi, who heads the Cyrenaican Executive Bureau, which advocates for autonomy for the eastern part of Libya, told Libyan television hat the U.S. seizure was a victory “because the world will be discussing our cause at the Security Council now.”
Hours after the tankers’ seizure, a car bomb in Benghazi underscored how precarious the central government’s hold is. At least 11 soldiers were killed in the blast, which was detonated at a military training facility just after a graduation ceremony. At least five people were wounded critically by the explosion.