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Saturday, December 3, 2016

By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Foreign Staff

CAIRO — U.S. Navy SEALs took control of a rogue ship illegally loaded with Libyan crude oil early Monday in Mediterranean waters off the coast of Cyprus, ending a crisis that led to the ouster of the country’s prime minister and highlighted the inability of Libya’s central government to protect its most valued assets.

It was the most overt U.S. military intervention on behalf of the fragile Libyan government since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi 2 years ago.

The Pentagon said no one was hurt in the operation, which it announced at around 2:30 a.m. in Washington.

The Pentagon said three armed men had been taken into custody aboard the vessel, the commercial tanker Morning Glory, but it was not clear whether the men had been handed over to the Libyan government. A Libyan government statement said that the ship’s crew was “safe and well” and “would be dealt with in accordance to international and national law,” but it made no mention of the armed men.

The Libyan government said its navy “and other forces” had tried to capture the ship “but faced challenges owing to bad weather and inadequate resources.”

“The government expresses its appreciation to all countries who participated in this operation which took place to enforce the sovereign will of the Libyan nation,” the statement said. “In particular, it wishes to thank the United States of America and the Republic of Cyprus.”

President Barack Obama approved the operation at 10 p.m. EDT Sunday or 4 a.m. local time Monday, the Pentagon statement said.

In the Pentagon statement, spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said the operation was undertaken at the request of both the Libyan and Cypriot governments. It referred to the Morning Glory as “stateless,” meaning it was not registered in any country, allowing the United States to move without gaining any other government’s permission.

When the Morning Glory’s presence was first noted in Libyan waters earlier this month, it was flying the North Korean flag. But after Libya complained, North Korea denied that it had been registered there legally.

“The SEAL team embarked and operated from the guided missile destroyer USS Roosevelt (DDG-80),” the Pentagon statement said. “USS Roosevelt provided helicopter support and served as a command and control and support platform for the other members of the force assigned to conduct the mission.”

The statement did not specify how many Americans were involved in the early morning operation. It said a team of sailors from the USS Stout had boarded the ship and would “be supervising” its return to an unidentified Libyan port.

The tanker episode marked the biggest crisis to strike Libya’s central government since Gadhafi’s overthrow and was the latest sign of the ongoing hostility between that government and the militias that came together to battle Gadhafi in 2011.

Since then, the militias have refused all entreaties to surrender their weapons, and the central government has proved incapable of asserting its authority over them.

AFP Photo/Robert Fluegel