On March 17th, some 32 kilometers off the coast of Cyprus two dozen U.S. Navy SEAL commandos used power boats to go from a U.S. Navy destroyer to a nearby North Korean tanker. Once aboard the tanker the SEALs quickly took control and arrested three Libyans the crew of 21 said had, in effect, hijacked the tanker and its $30 million cargo of stolen Libyan oil. There were no casualties and the tanker was taken back to Libya.
Libya had asked the United States to help retrieve the tanker, which had fled Libya with the oil. The North Korean registered tanker fled the Libyan oil loading port of Es Sider early on March 11th and made it to international waters before Libyan Navy gunboats could catch up. The Libyan sailors were within their rights to board the tanker and retake it, but they were not trained to do so and there were apparently some armed men on the tanker. The tanker then moved towards Cyprus and Libya asked the Americans for some help. The U.S. dispatched a destroyer with SEALs on board and the American warship was soon following the tanker. The U.S. government agreed on the 16th to use SEALs to get the tanker back and the raid was carried out before dawn on the 17th.
It was feared that the tanker, which is actually owned by a Saudi company, was moving the oil to somewhere it could transfer the cargo to another ship or a port where it could be sold on the open market by brokers who specialize in finding buyers for stolen oil. Everyone makes some money in a deal like this, including the broker, the ship owner and the rebel militia that controls Es Sider. That militia was originally the security guards hired to protect the port. But a local militia leader persuaded the guards to seize control of the port in August 2013. The government then stopped paying the rebel guards and their leader has been trying to sell the oil stored at the port ever since to keep his rebel group going. The government threatened to use force to stop moving oil out of the country illegally but after three months of trying the rebels finally got a tanker, loaded it with oil and sent if off to market. Later on the 11th parliament fired the prime minister and began investigating him for corruption. The defense minister was appointed temporary prime minister and ordered to have the military move on the rebel held ports within a week. That has not happened so far but the army and pro-government militias are moving on oil fields and ports occupied by rebel militias and some of these facilities have been retaken. This latest chapter in the Libyan Follies should be played out by April 1st.
This bizarre situation began on March 5th when a 37,000 ton oil tanker flying the flag of North Korea approached the oil export port of Es Sider. The government warned this ship to go away, as the rebels holding Es Sider have been trying to sell the oil stored at the port all year and a government gunboat had chased away a Maltese tanker in January. The North Korean ship did not dock because the workers at the port were still loyal to the government and refused to assist in loading oil. The rebels required several days to find someone who would take care of doing the loading for them.
On March 9th the North Korean tanker finally docked at Es Sider and began loading oil. The government sent a gunboat and threatened to fire on the North Korean ship if it tried to leave with the oil. The tanker did finally flee to open water.
On March 13th North Korea denied any involvement with the North Korean registered tanker. North Korea pointed out that the ship was registered in North Korea in February for six months with the understanding that there would be no illegality involved. The ship is actually owned by a Saudi company and currently controlled by an Egyptian shipping company that is apparently helping to sell the oil. North Korea has long been involved with shady deals like this and is apparently trying to distance itself from one that went off the rails.
SEALs train regularly for these kinds of boarding operations and by coming aboard quickly and then rapidly rounding up the crew and seizing control of the engine room and bridge there is little opportunity for any kind of resistance.