US Navy Seals took control Monday, March 17 of a North Korean-flagged tanker carrying crude oil loaded from a rebel-hold port in eastern Libya after chasing it down to international waters off Cyprus. The US Pentagon and State Department said the tanker, the Morning Glory, was a pirate or rogue vessel of unknown ownership.
Two guided missile destroyers, the USS Roosevelt, which carried the Seals to target, and the USS Stout, which escorted the tanker back to Libyan port, took part in the operation, shortly after it was approved Monday by President Barack Obama.
The Pentagon also announced that US intervention was requested by the Libyan and Cypriot governments and was undertaken to return the oil cargo to its owners, the Libyan government.
These official communiqués reflect inconsistencies in the Obama administration’s regional policies.
Libya is in a state of near-anarchy and does not have a regular or stable government.
Prime minister Ali Zeidan was summarily dismissed by parliament on March 8, for failing to detain the large 37,000-ton tanker loading up 234,000 barrels of oil at the rebel-held port of Al Sidra in eastern Libya.
Zeidan thereupon boarded a waiting aircraft and flew to Germany where he announced his dismissal was illegal.
In any case, the Tripoli administration, such as it is, has not controlled the eastern half of Libya for the nearly three years since NATO overthrew Muammar Qaddafi. It is ruled by a motley assortment of squabbling militias, most of them affiliated with Islamist extremists groups, including al Qaeda and armed Islamist groups and crime gangs based across the border at the Egyptian port of Alexandria.
It was from there that the Morning Glory sailed to Al Sidra.
The Obama administration has taken care to avoid confronting the separatist militias of eastern Libya, even after they were accused of the terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11 and the murder of four American officials, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
The eastern province contains two-thirds of Libya’s oil. The militias have seized key oil terminals and are selling the crude to any buyer they can find. The standoff over the control of oil is part of the wider turmoil engulfing Libya.
The US saved from its first military encounter with North Korean by Pyongyang’s denial of responsibility for operating the Morning Glory last Wednesday. The North Koreans claimed that it was operated by “an Egyptian company which had been allowed to temporarily use the North Korean flag under contract.” Pyongyang was not responsible for that company’s “illegal actions.”
The docking of the ship at Al Sidra on March 8 set off alarms in Washington, which resulted in the action to recover the ship and its oil freight with all speed. Washington saw North Korea and unruly eastern Libya developing their first direct link, undesirable not least because the east Libyan militias have developed a roarding trade in one of the world’s leading black markets for advanced weapons, including systems made in America such as top-grade anti-air missiles.
Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan reacted quickly by ordering the Libyan army to commandeer the tanker and make sure it did not escape Al Sidra with the oil. But the army chiefs said they needed more time to muster enough strength for the operation. The truth is that they don’t control the bulk of the army, because many of the troops have joined up with armed militias.