* US Navy returns tanker to Libyan authorities
* Sixteen people hurt in overnight clashes
* Nascent army takes on experienced militia
(Adds tanker to dock first at Tripoli port)
By Ulf Laessing
ZAWIYA PORT, Libya, March 22 The U.S. Navy
handed over to Libyan authorities on Saturday an oil tanker
carrying crude that had been loaded at a port controlled by
armed rebels in defiance of Tripoli's government.
The Morning Glory tanker was due to arrive later on Saturday
at a government-controlled port after being seized by U.S.
commandos and escorted back through international waters by the
U.S. Navy, Libyan officials said.
Hours before the handover, at least 16 people were wounded
when Libyan rebels occupying three eastern oil ports clashed
with troops and attacked an army base, where pro-government
forces had been preparing to break the rebel blockade.
Anti-aircraft gunfire and explosions were heard overnight
and after dawn on Saturday in Ajdabiya, the hometown of rebel
leader Ibrahim Jathran, whose fighters seized the ports last
summer to demand a greater share in Libya's oil resources.
The struggle for control of Libya's vital petroleum
resources is one of the key challenges facing the weak central
government, which has still failed to secure the North African
country three years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Brigades of former anti-Gaddafi rebels and militias refuse
to disarm and often use armed force or control of oil facilities
to make demands on a state whose army is still in training.
U.S. special forces boarded and seized the Morning Glory
tanker last Sunday off Cyprus, days after it left Libya with a
cargo of crude from one port, Es Sider, occupied by Jathran's
men who had vowed to export oil themselves to resist Tripoli.
"The handover took place in international waters off the
coast of Libya, and the Government of Libya and its security
forces are now in control of the vessel," the U.S. embassy said
in a statement.
HEADING TO TRIPOLI
The tanker had originally planned to go to Zawiya port from
where its crude would be fed into the local refinery, which has
been forced to lower its output because of a protest at another
oil facility, the El Sharara oilfield, port officials said.
But authorities decided at the last minute to let the ship
dock first in the capital Tripoli to let the crew disembark,
said Abdullah Rashid, controller at Zawiya port, which is
located 55 km (34 miles) west of the capital.
Libya has said its state prosecutor will take legal action
against the shipowner, the crew and other parties involved in
the attempted sale of its oil.
Rashid said the Morning Glory would arrive late at night at
Tripoli port and then continue on Sunday or Monday to Zawiya,
though a navy spokesman declined to confirm this.
The Tripoli government gave Jathran a two-week deadline on
March 12 to end his port blockade or face a military assault,
though analysts say Libya's nascent armed forces may struggle to
carry out that threat.
LANA state news agency said tribal community leaders helped
stop the fighting earlier on Saturday between the rebels and
Libyan soldiers. But the agency reported 16 people were wounded.
Jathran's federalist gunmen managed to load crude onto the
Morning Glory tanker after months of threats. The ship left port
and escaped Libya's navy, embarrassing Tripoli's government and
prompting parliament to sack Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.
The seizure of the tanker in international waters was a rare
boost for the government, which has struggled to end a standoff
that has cost the state more than $7 billion in lost revenue.
The three rebel-held ports account for around 700,000
barrels per day of Libya's oil export capacity, or around half
of its total petroleum shipments.
The town where Saturday's battle broke out, Ajdabiya, is
divided between Jathran supporters and those who fear his oil
blockade will lead to the collapse of the state.
Tripoli's government is also stymied by infighting among
Islamists, secular parties and tribes that has delayed Libya's
transition to democracy since the fall of Gaddafi, whose one-man
rule left few state institutions.
Western governments, which backed NATO's air strikes to help
the 2011 anti-Gaddafi revolt, are training Libya's armed forces
and are pressing the factions to reach a political settlement.
(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Gareth Jones)