Mar. 10, 2014
Libya has threatened to bomb a North Korean-flagged tanker if it tries to ship oil from a rebel-controlled port, in a serious escalation of a standoff over the country’s petroleum wealth.
The rebels, who have seized three major Libyan ports since August to press their demands for more autonomy, warned Tripoli against staging an attack to halt the oil sale after the tanker docked at Es Sider terminal, one of the country’s biggest. The vessel started loading crude late at night, oil officials said.
The government is struggling to control militias that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but kept their weapons and now challenge state authority.
A local television station controlled by protesters showed footage of pro-autonomy rebels holding a lengthy ceremony and slaughtering a camel to celebrate their first oil shipment. In the distance stood a tanker. The station said the ceremony took place in Es Sider.
Prime minister Ali Zeidan appeared on television to warn the tanker’s crew. “The tanker will be bombed if it doesn’t follow orders when leaving [the port]. This will be an environmental disaster.”
He denounced the attempt to load oil as a criminal act. Authorities have ordered the arrest of the tanker’s crew.
There was no immediate sign of the country’s armed forces moving toward the port. Analysts say the military, still in training, would struggle to overcome rebels battle-hardened from the eight-month uprising against Gaddafi.
Zeidan acknowledged the army had failed to implement his orders last week to stop the protesters sending reinforcements from their base in Ajdabiyah, west of the regional capital Benghazi, to Es Sider.
“Nothing was done,” Zeidan said, adding that political opponents in parliament were obstructing his government. He said North Korea had asked the ship’s captain to sail away from the port but armed protesters had prevented that.
Abb-Rabbo Albarassi, the eastern autonomy movement’s self-declared prime minister, said Zeidan’s government had failed to meet its demands to share oil wealth, to investigate oil corruption and to grant regional autonomy.
“We tried to reach a deal with the government, but they and parliament … were too busy with themselves and didn’t even discuss our demands,” he said at the televised ceremony. “If anyone attacks, we will respond to that.”
A successful independent oil shipment would be a blow to the government. Tripoli had said earlier it would destroy tankers trying to buy oil from Ibrahim Jathran, a former anti-Gaddafi rebel who seized the port and two others with thousands of his men in August.