US Navy Seals boarded and took control of an oil tanker yesterday that had loaded crude at a rebel-held port in eastern Libya and escaped to sea, the Pentagon said.
No one was hurt "when US forces, at the request of both the Libyan and Cypriot governments, boarded and took control of the commercial tanker Morning Glory, a stateless vessel seized earlier this month by three armed Libyans", Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said.
The operation was conducted in the early hours of yesterday in international waters southeast of Cyprus.
The Seals operated from the USS Roosevelt, a guided missile destroyer that provided helicopter support, while sailors from another destroyer, the USS Stout, boarded the tanker and prepared to sail it to an unnamed port in Libya.
The Morning Glory last week slipped through a Libyan naval blockade off the eastern port of al-Sidra - controlled by rebels seeking autonomy from Tripoli - after reportedly being loaded with 234,000 barrels of crude.
Libya's interim government confirmed the takeover of the ship and thanked "particularly the United States and the Republic of Cyprus".
It said in a statement that the tanker was on its way to Libya and that crew members "will be treated in accordance with national and international laws".
Cyprus said its vessels had monitored the tanker's course as it made its way near the Mediterranean island, remaining in international waters and eventually stopping 18 nautical miles south of the port city of Limassol.
A Cypriot police source said three men - two Israelis and a Senegalese - were detained for questioning on suspicion of attempting to buy the tanker's cargo, but were freed after a court refused to issue an arrest warrant.
Two of the men carried diplomatic passports - one from Senegal and one from a central African country, the security source said. Cyprus media said the three flew into Larnaca on a private jet late on Friday, hired a boat from the marina and went out to the tanker to negotiate with the crew. Police monitored their movements and the boat was intercepted once they were back in Cyprus waters. The trio flew to Tel Aviv on Sunday.
The oil tanker's escape after Libyan authorities had repeatedly vowed to take all measures to stop it dramatically underscored the weakness of the central government, which has struggled to rein in heavily armed former rebels from the 2011 revolt.
Rebels pressing for autonomy for Libya's eastern Cyrenaica region have been blockading the country's eastern oil terminals since July, leading to a decline in oil exports from 1.5 million barrels a day to just 250,000.
But the loading of the Morning Glory and its escape to sea marked a major escalation in the struggle and triggered the ouster last Tuesday of the liberal-backed prime minister Ali Zeidan, whose inability to bring law and order to Libya was highlighted by his own brief abduction by armed men late last year.
The Morning Glory originally was a North Korean-flagged ship, but Pyongyang on Wednesday had "cancelled and deleted" its registry.
Additional reporting by Reuters