* Rebels deny losing control of North Korean-flagged tanker
* Government says tanker being taken to western port
* Oil blockade has slashed vital government revenues
* Government forces no match for battle-hardened militias
(Adds rebel leader In paragraphs 2, 9-10)
By Ulf Laessing and Ghaith Shennib
TRIPOLI, March 10 Libya on Monday stopped a
North Korean-flagged tanker that had loaded oil from a
rebel-held port, after naval forces briefly exchanged fire with
the rebels, officials said.
But in a sign of the chaos and conflicting information
typical for Libya, rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran denied in a
televised statement broadcast from a ship that he had lost
control of the oil tanker.
The LIbyan officials also said the government will assemble
forces to "liberate" all occupied ports, raising the stakes over
a blockage that has cut off vital oil revenue.
The conflict over oil wealth is increasing fears that the
OPEC producer may slide deeper into chaos or even splinter as
the fragile government fails to rein in dozens of militias that
helped oust Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but now defy state
The rebels, who have seized three ports and partly control a
fourth in the North African country, said they had dispatched
forces to central Libya to deal with any government attack.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan told Reuters naval forces had
seized the North Korean-flagged tanker outside the eastern Es
Sider port controlled by rebels and were taking it to a
government port in western Libya.
"The ship is around 20 miles from Es Sider," Zeidan said.
"It stopped due to darkness and won't move tonight but is under
complete control and secured. Tomorrow it will move."
Naval forces had halted the ship after a brief firefight
with the rebels, Culture Minister and government spokesman Habib
al-Amin later told reporters. Nobody had been wounded, but he
warned opening fire again might damage nearby oil facilities.
But rebel leader Jathran appeared on the television station
of his movement after midnight and denied Tripoli's forces had
surrounded the tanker.
Speaking from a ship, Jathran vowed to keep selling oil
independently of the government, and blasted the United States
for earlier criticizing the crude loading. The station did not
identify the ship he was standing on, but it appeared to be
smaller than the 37,000-tonne oil tanker.
Even without any major military action, the escalation kills
any hope of restoring oil exports soon. A wave of protests at
oilfields and ports has reduced Libyan output to a trickle,
undermining state authority because oil is the main revenue
source supporting the budget and basic food imports.
The head of parliament, who has quasi-presidential powers,
ordered the formation of a force made up of regular soldiers and
allied militias to take back the occupied ports, which
previously handled more than 700,000 barrels of oil per day.
The operation will start within one week, parliament head
Nuri Ali Abu Sahmain said in a decree published by spokesman
Omar Hmeidan. "The force will be set up to liberate the ports
and end the blockage," Hmeidan told Reuters.
Zeidan, who said on Saturday the tanker would be bombed if
it tried to export oil, said military action was only one of
"What is confirmed it that all ports will be liberated from
the occupiers with all means possible," he said. "We prefer
talks but if talks fail then the state will act."
Zeidan said authorities would unload the crude from the
tanker once it reached a western port and then launch legal
measures against the potential buyers.
Libya has been trying to rebuild its army since Gaddafi's
ousting, but analysts say it is not yet a match for
battle-hardened militias that fought in the eight-month uprising
that toppled the dictator.
Still, the force will be drawn from cities such as Misrata
that are home to fighters who saw battle in the civil war,
according to the decree. Misrata forces were sent earlier this
year to fight in clashes deep in Libya's south.
Abb-Rabbo al-Barassi, the self-declared rebel prime
minister, called on "all honourable men" in the east to join his
forces, a rebel television station reported.
The rebels, made up of former oil security guards, said they
had sent forces by land and sea to central Libya to confront any
FULL CONFRONTATION UNLIKELY
While the navy did open fire on a Maltese-flagged tanker
trying to approach Es Sider in January, analysts say a full
military confrontation with the rebels would be unlikely.
Jathran, the leader of the protesters, is a former
anti-Gaddafi commander who was in charge of protecting oilfields
and ports until he turned against the government in the summer.
His campaign to seek more rights for Libya's underdeveloped
east has won him some sympathy, but many people dismiss him as a
tribal warlord with no political vision.
Libya's top Islamic clerics urged militias who had helped
topple Gaddafi to help the government in trying to stop the
tanker, according to a statement read on television.
The United Nations' special envoy to Libya, Tarek Mitri,
told the U.N. Security Council on Monday that the loading of oil
onto the North Korean-flagged vessel "constitutes an illegal act
and violates Libya's sovereignty over its ports and natural
On Sunday, Tripoli said the navy and pro-government
militias had sent boats to stop the tanker from leaving. The
vessel had arrived at Es Sider on Saturday.
It is unusual for a tanker flagged to secretive North Korea
to sail in the Mediterranean. Shipping sources said it was a
flag of convenience to keep the ship's ownership secret.
In a rare bright spot, state National Oil Corp managed to
restart the southern El Sharara oilfield after a protest ended
there, a spokesman said. It is now pumping 150,000 barrels per
day and might reach full capacity at 340,000 bpd by Tuesday
(Additional reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli, Ghaith Shennib, and
Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Dale Hudson
and Mohammad Zargham)