ZAWIYA, Libya (AP) — American sailors handed over control of a captured North Korean-flagged oil tanker to Libyan forces while in international waters Saturday, a spokesman for the Libyan navy said.
The saga of the tanker Morning Glory, which authorities now say is bound for the capital Tripoli, has illustrated the extreme weakness of Libya's government, vying with militias for dominance since the 2011 ouster and death of longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
Officials also said that they had interrogated the ship's captain and learned that it belonged to a Saudi company. The main force behind the tanker is a well-known militia commander in east Libya who was planning to sell oil in defiance of Tripoli. But Ibrahim Jedran's international partners have until now remained unknown. North Korean officials say they have canceled the ship's registration after the incident.
Last week, U.S. Navy SEALs seized the ship off the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, stopping an attempt by the Libyan militia to sell its shipload of crude in defiance of Tripoli. A Pentagon spokesman said that 34 sailors from the frigate USS Elrod were aboard the tanker Friday.
Jedran, whose fighters control the terminal where the tanker took on its load, is part of a movement demanding autonomy for the east of the country. He has warned the U.S. against handing over the tanker and three of his fighters, reportedly including one of his brothers, who are on board.
Libyan authorities at first planned to bring the tanker Morning Glory to dock at the port of Zawiya refinery, 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of the capital Tripoli, according to Ayoub Qassem, spokesman for the Libyan navy.
However, just as it came into sight of Zawiya, the country's top prosecutor ordered that it head to Tripoli port for further investigation, Abdullah Rashed, supervisor of operations at Zawiya port, told The Associated Press.
Qassem had earlier told the official news agency LANA that three Libyan navy ships escorted the vessel into national waters. Last summer, Jedran's militia took over Libya's oil facilities in the east. As a result, the country's exports of its biggest revenue earner have slowed to a trickle. This month, the militia loaded the Morning Glory with $30 million worth of oil. It set sail and evaded a Libyan blockade to escape to the Mediterranean, and the militia said they would sell the oil on behalf of a council that claims to be a government in the east, challenging the central authority.
Qassem said three Libyans and 21 crew members who were on board were detained by the Libyans after the U.S. Navy handed the ship over. A Libyan security official confirmed that one of Jedran's brothers was on board. He said a boat of the Libyan navy forces had taken the Libyans and the crew aboard to Tripoli.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters. A spokesman for the guards of the oil terminals, Walid al-Tarhouni, said Saturday that officials had learned that the ship belonged to a Saudi company following interrogation of the vessel's captain, and after reviewing the ownership documents.
Al-Tarhouni said Jedran's threats are "media talk" that have no effect and that the army in the eastern area is working to regain control of the oil terminals. Jon Ki Chol, deputy director-general of North Korea's Maritime Administration, has previously said that although North Korea had provided a flag for the tanker Morning Glory, it canceled registration of the ship after being notified of the incident.
When the ship docks into the harbor, it's expected to take 10 to 15 hours to unload 350,000 barrels of oil, Abdel Satar el-Terbel, coordinator of the naval operations in Zawiya Refinery Company, said.
The attempted oil sale fueled political crisis in Libya and led to the parliament's removal of Ali Zidan from his post as prime minister, saying it had underlined his weakness.
Associated Press Writer Mariam Rizk contributed to this report from Cairo, Egypt