TRIPOLI, 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.
Ayoub Qassem said that the tanker, Morning Glory, is now heading to the port at Zawiya refinery, 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of the capital Tripoli. Qassem told the official news agency LANA that three Libyan navy ships escorted the vessel into national waters.
Last week, U.S. Navy SEALs seized the ship off the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, stopping an attempt by a Libyan militia to sell its shipload of crude in defiance of Tripoli. A Pentagon spokesman said Friday that 34 sailors from the frigate USS Elrod are aboard the tanker.
The tanker saga illustrated the extreme weakness of Libya's government, vying with militias for dominance since the 2011 ouster and death of longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
The militia commander controlling the terminal where the tanker took on its load, Ibrahim Jedran, 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.
Last summer, his 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, Jedran's militia loaded the Morning Glory with $30 million worth of oil and it evaded a Libyan blockade to escape to the Mediterranean, saying 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 are detained.
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.