Gunbattles erupted late Monday when Libyan government forces attempted to seize back an oil tanker that rebellious militiamen were trying to use to independently sell crude, a Libyan official said.
Culture Minister Habib al-Amin said government forces had taken control of the tanker after the clashes. However, the militia controlling the As Sidra oil port denied it had lost control of the vessel.
The clashes were the most serious confrontation yet between militias that have paralyzed the country’s oil industry by blocking major ports and a government too weak to confront them.
The minister said at a late-night news conference that the Libyan forces took over the North Korean-flagged Morning Glory at around 9 p.m. local time after two skirmishes—one in the morning and one in the evening—with militiamen on speedboats around the tanker.
He said there was a third exchange of gunfire after government forces seized the ship, but they had managed to secure it anyway.
The government forces were trying to move the ship away from the port, which is controlled by militias seeking autonomy from the government in Tripoli. But they weren’t able to move the ship for technical reasons the minister didn’t explain.
A spokesman for a regional militia council holding the port denied the government statement. Ali al-Hassi told Libyan Television they still controlled the ship docked at the port east of Tripoli, one of the country’s main oil export terminals.
Earlier on Monday, navy ships and smaller fishing vessels carrying rocket-propelled grenades ringed the North Korean-flagged tanker Morning Glory in an effort to block it as it began moving out of the port, Libyan officials said. Authorities demanded the militiamen on board surrender to avoid an armed escalation.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan threatened Saturday to bomb the ship to prevent it from leaving the port. Justice Minister Salah Marghani said militiamen who boarded the ship had committed an act of piracy.