Ras Lanuf, near Es Sider
Libya’s navy opened fire after a Maltese-flagged oil tanker approached to illegally load crude at a port that has been controlled for months by armed protesters demanding more autonomy from Tripoli, officials said on Monday.
The use of force to prevent protesters at eastern ports from shipping oil to world markets independently is a major escalation in a blockade that has already slashed oil exports and revenues for the OPEC member state.
Libyan officials said the tanker Baku had entered Libyan waters on Sunday in an attempt to approach the seized port of Es Sider. But the navy fired shots after the vessel refused to stop and instead turned to flee toward Malta.
“We asked them to change course toward Misrata, but then we had to open fire when they refused and started to pull away, zigzagging,” navy spokesman Emad Ayoub said in a televised news conference with other military officials.
Two years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the oil standoff in eastern Libya is just one of the complex confrontations facing the weak central government, which has struggled to contain rival militias and former rebels who once fought the dictator.
The state-run National Oil Corp. (NOC) said Libya had warned the owner of the vessel that approaching the port was illegal and said it would stop any tanker trying “to smuggle and steal Libyan oil illegally.”
Protest leaders, based in Ajdabiya in the east, were not immediately available for comment to confirm they had sought to load a shipment of crude.
But the eastern protesters, who demand more regional autonomy and a greater share of oil wealth, took control of three key ports six months ago, and have repeatedly threatened to sell crude independently.