US Navy SEALs operating from the USS Roosevelt seized a tanker that fled with a cargo of oil from a Libyan port. REUTERS/
A Libyan rebel leader has accused the United States of
behaving like pirates after US naval forces seized an
oil-laden tanker that had sailed from a rebel-held port in
the east of the chaotic North African state.
Ibrahim Jathran's defiant speech dampened hopes of a quick
peaceful settlement with Libya's central government to end a
blockage of three oil ports his men took over in summer to
press for eastern autonomy and a greater share of oil
The conflict reflects wider chaos in Libya where the
government has been struggling to rein in militias that
helped overthrow dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but kept
their guns to become powerful political players.
On Sunday, US forces stormed a tanker that had made it as far
as the eastern Mediterranean off Cyprus after loading crude
at the Es Sider port, one of three Jahtran's men have
occupied, and eluding Libyan government forces off-shore. The
ship is now on its way back to a government-controlled port.
The Tripoli government has given Jahtran's group two weeks to
clear the ports or face a military offensive to end the port
blockage, which has crippled the OPEC country's finances.
But in a speech broadcast by a rebel television station,
Jathran did not mention a government offer to hold new talks
and said his group would continue its struggle.
"We will continue our fight for our right to dream of a
better tomorrow for our children and families," said Jathran,
calling for the United Nations and Arab League to intervene
to help the people of eastern Libya.
"We urge the United States government to refrain from siding
with the extremists currently holding power in Tripoli," he
said, describing the US navy operation as "piracy".
"We call on the US authorities to guarantee the safety of our
sons on board and of the entire crew, and to ensure that the
tanker is promptly returned to us," he said, confirming that
his men had boarded the ship after loading oil.
Jathran, based in Ajdabiya in eastern Libya, defended his
repeated attempts to bypass Tripoli in selling oil. "We
declare and confirm that, indeed, the majority of Libyan
tribes have agreed to the necessity of taking hold of our
resources for the benefit of the people," Jathran said.
While Jathran's oil sale proved unsuccessful this time, the
episode led to the dismissal of Libyan Prime Minister Ali
Zeidan, who fled to Europe last week.
Western powers, worried that Libya might fracture or slide
deeper into anarchy, have been training Libyan armed forces
and cajoling conflicting parties in government to work
together, to little avail.
But diplomats say the nascent army would struggle in any case
to take on Jathran's men, who helped overthrow Gaddafi. He
defected last year as head of a state oil protection force,
taking with him his armed men.
The eighth-month port blockage has knocked down oil exports,
the main source for the budget and fund for basic food
"We are in a very difficult situation," said Souhail Abu
Sheikha, acting economy minister. He said there was still no
budget approved for 2014, adding that financial crises had
been made worse by the government's inability to collect
customs duties since some border crossings were beyond
Oil exports have fallen to 100,000-120,000 barrels per day
(bpd) in the last two weeks, acting oil minister Omar Shakmak
told reporters. Exports have been well below capacity of
around 1.25 million bpd since July.
Shakmak added that the El Sharara oilfield in the southwest,
which can produce 340,000 bpd, was still shut down by
protesters from a state security force making financial
The field reopened briefly last week after a shutdown since
mid-February. Libya's current exports now come mainly from
the western Mellitah port and its offshore oilfields.