A stealth mission by operatives supported by the guided-missile destroyer USS Roosevelt saw the North Korea-flagged vessel Morning Glory captured off Cyprus late on Sunday.
A team from another US destroyed, USS Stout, is to escort the tanker – said to be laden with 200,000 barrels of oil – back to Libya.
In a statement from the US Department of State, Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said nobody was hurt in the mission that was requested by both the governments of Libya and Cyprus.
“The boarding operation, approved by President Obama and conducted just after 10pm EDT on 16 March 16 in international waters south-east of Cypress [sic], was executed by a team of US Navy Seals attached to Special Operations Command Europe,” Kirby 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 Morning Glory will be under way soon to a port in Libya with a team of sailors from the USS Stout (DDG-55) embarked. The sailors will be supervising the transit.”
The Morning Glory is thought to be owned by Egyptian interests, but North Korean officials have denied any involvement in the tanker’s operations, saying they are only the flag state of the vessel.
Kirby referred to the ship as “a stateless vessel” and said it had been taken by just “three armed Libyans”. North Korea revoked the tanker’s registration once the vessel evaded Libyan forces.
The Morning Glory docked at the port of Es Sider east of Tripoli more than a week ago. This prompted then prime minister Ali Zeidan to call for the crew’s arrest and lead some Libyan authorities to demand that it be bombed.
The General National Congress then issued a decree ordering the rapid assembly of amilitary taskforce to seize back control of all rebel-held ports.
Last Tuesday Zeidan said that the Morning Glory had been intercepted outside of Es Sider port and was under governmental control.
However, rebels also told the BBC that this claim was “government lies” and that the vessel remained docked at Es Sider, from where it later sailed.
Reports indicate that bad weather forced naval vessels to sail close to shore, leaving the route to international waters relatively free for the tanker, which escaped.
The fiasco cost Zeidan his job as he lost a vote of confidence in Parliament. Despite having a travel ban imposed on him, he swiftly fled to Malta from where he is said to have flown on to somewhere else in Europe.
The Morning Glory does not appear on numerous shipping databases, but one shows that it was named Gulf Glory and flew the Liberian flag up until at least October last year. It was then sold to unidentified interests, another database shows.