U.S. Navy SEALs seize oil tanker carrying oil from rebel-controlled east Libya

The Guardian reports that the raid was authorized by the U.S. president Barack Obama after the interim Libyan government requested U.S. assistance.

The SEALs boarded the 21,000-ton tanker using helicopters and fast boats.

The Pentagon spokesman said that a U.S. navy crew was now piloting the tanker back towards a government-controlled Libyan port in west Libya.

In Libya, U.S. ambassador Deborah Jones, who last week described the rebel actions last week as “theft from the Libyan people”, tweeted: “Yes we can” in reaction to the operation on Monday. “Glad we were able to respond positively to Libya’s request for help in preventing illegal sale of its oil on stateless ship,” she wrote.

The Guardian also reports that two Israelis and a Senegalese were briefly detained in Cyprus on suspicion of negotiating to buy crude from the tanker. The three people were detained in the coastal city of Larnaca on Saturday, but a local court declined to issue arrest warrants as authorities in Cyprus had no evidence that the alleged offense took place within the territorial waters of Cyprus.

Newspapers in Cyprus report that the three arrived in Larnaca on a private jet late on Friday, hired a boat from the marina, and went out to the tanker to negotiate with the crew. The Cyprus police monitored their movements and the boat was intercepted when it came back to Larnaca. The three flew to Tel Aviv on Sunday night.

The U.S. action sends a signal that the United States supports the nominal Libyan government, especially after the east-Libya rebels, who have been in control of most of Libya’s oil fields since last summer, said they would continue to try and sell the oil under their control. A second tanker is expected to dock the port of Tobruk, which is also under rebels’ control.

It is not clear what effect the U.S. seizure of the tanker would have on the internal situation in Libya. Since the killing of Col. Qaddafi in November 2011, different parts of Libya have been run by different armed militias, loyal to different tribes and ethnic groups, with the central government having no authority or power.

The New York Times notes that the seizing of the oil is a blow to the ambitions of Ibrahim Jathran, 33, the leader of the eastern Libyan militia which was behind the attempt to sell the oil. Jathran, who has presented himself as a kind of Libyan Robin Hood, has led his militia in an eight-month blockade of Libya’s main oil ports, declaring that he was seeking greater political autonomy for east Libya and a bigger share of the oil revenue for his region, which contains most of the country’s oil reserves.

The willingness of the United States to prevent the sale of oil by Jathran’s militia may confront him with a force he must reckon with. The Libyan army and navy exist mostly on paper, and the commanders of the few army units and ship supposedly under government control typically ignore government instructions or can be easily bought off. This is also the case with armed militias loyal to various cabinet ministers.

The government in Tripoli does not have the means to take control of Libya’s large oil fields under Jathran’s control, or reopen the three ports he controls, and it is not likely the United States would send its forces to do so. The United States can, however, prevent him from selling the oil on his own.