U.S. Navy SEALs have engaged in a sensitive four-day mission in the Mediterranean Sea to steer a rogue tanker full of illegally obtained Libyan oil back toward waters controlled by the Libya’s government, the Pentagon revealed Monday.
Using high-speed boats under the cover of darkness, the SEALs seized the vessel from Libyan rebels during a raid off the coast of Cyprus on Sunday night, thwarting what the Pentagon described as an illicit plan by the rebels to raise funds by selling the oil on the black market.
No shots were fired during the covert operation, which the Pentagon said took less than two hours and was launched after the governments of both Libya and Cyprus asked the United States to intervene. President Obama approved, signing off on the mission at roughly 10 p.m. Sunday night.
According to the Pentagon statement from spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby, the SEALs then moved quickly, using the USS Roosevelt, a guided-missile destroyer positioned in waters southeast of Cyprus, as a jumping-off point.
The fast-paced series of events marks the latest in a case that has taken a series of twists and turns since early this month when the oil tanker, sailing under the name “Morning Glory,” showed up at the eastern Libyan port of Sidra.
The port is one of several in Libya currently under blockade by rebel militias attempting to seize control of the nation’s oil wealth as part of a bid to achieve autonomy from Tripoli for eastern Libya.
The arrival of the Morning Glory, which cruised in flying a North Korean flag, triggered outrage in Tripoli, where Libya’s struggling national government threatened to use its own military forces to thwart any sale of oil to the tanker.
With North Korea having since denied any connection to the Morning Glory, news reports have said the tanker was actually being navigated by a Egypt-based company. The vessel was ultimately — and officials say illegally — loaded with oil owned by the Libyan government’s National Oil Company before it left port en route to an unknown destination.
The development so enraged Libya’s parliament last week, that the body responded by sacking the nation’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.
At some point during the process, meanwhile, the Morning Glory was taken over by three armed Libyans presumed to be aligned with rebels who control the oil port. The New York Times reported on Monday that Navy SEALs, who subsequently seized the tanker, captured the three Libyans and that the Morning Glory’s captain had described them as “hijackers.”
It was not immediately clear whether the men will remain in U.S. custody, or whether or where they may be charged with a crime.
Army Col. Steve Warren, another Pentagon spokesman, said only that the Morning Glory is now being guided by the U.S. Navy toward Libya and expected to reach the fringes of Libyan territorial waters within four days.
Col. Warren added that the tanker is being escorted by the USS Stout — a guided-missile destroyer based out of Norfolk, Va.
The Navy SEAL team that initially spearheaded the recovery operation has since departed from the Morning Glory, he said, adding that 25 USS Stout crew members are now aboard the tanker.
The U.S. crew members have the three Libyan rebels in custody, Col. Warren said.