The Libyan Ministry of Defense has issued orders to its military authorizing the use of force to stop a North Korea-flagged tanker loading crude oil sold by armed rebels seeking to bypass the Tripoli government, state media said yesterday.
The rebels, who have seized three major Libyan ports since August last year to press demands for a greater share of oil revenues and political autonomy, received the tanker on Saturday at the Es Sider port in the volatile east.
The docking and loading of crude escalates a seven-month blockade of key oil ports and is just one facet of deepening turmoil in the OPEC producer, which is struggling to control militias that helped oust former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, but kept their weapons and now challenge state authority.
Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan on Saturday said Libya would bomb the 37,000-tonne tanker if it tried to exit the port, one of Libya’s biggest oil export terminals.
State news agency LANA yesterday said the defense ministry had issued orders to the military and warned the tanker’s owner.
“The defense ministry issued orders to the chief of staff, air force and navy to take care of this tanker, which entered Libyan waters without official permission,” LANA said.
“The order authorizes the use of force and puts the responsibility of any damages resulting from this on the ship owner,” it said.
Spokesmen for both the state-run National Oil Corp (NOC) and the rebels said the tanker was still docked at the port.
A local newspaper, al-Wasat, said the tanker had loaded US$36 million of crude.
A reporter who visited Es Sider on Saturday evening said there was only a small force at the gate consisting of about 10 cars.
The guards had orders not to let staff out until the loading was complete, one of them said.
The rebels are led by former anti-Qaddafi commander Ibrahim Jathran, who used to be in charge of a brigade paid by the state to protect petroleum facilities, but turned against the government and seized the port and two others in the east with thousands of his men in August.
Tripoli has held indirect talks with Jathran, but his demand for a greater share of oil revenues for the eastern region, which it had under Qaddafi’s predecessor King Idris, is sensitive because the government worries this might lead to secession.
In January, the Libyan Navy fired on a Maltese-flagged tanker that it said tried to load oil from the protesters in Es Sider, successfully chasing it away.
It is very unusual for an oil tanker flagged in secretive North Korea to operate in the Mediterranean, shipping sources said.
NOC says the tanker is owned by a Saudi company.
It changed ownership in the past few weeks and was previously called Gulf Glory, according to a shipping source.
Libya’s government has tried to end a wave of protests at oil ports and fields that have slashed oil output to 230,000 barrels per day (bpd) from 1.4 million bpd in July last year.
Western powers worry Libya will slide into deeper instability or even break apart.