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Libya says its forces seize disputed oil tanker

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March 10, 2014 05:47 PM EST | AP

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TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Libyan officials said that government forces on Monday took over a North Korean-flagged oil tanker docked at a terminal held by a regional militia, where it had been attempting to load oil. The militia, however, denied the government had taken the ship.

The standoff at al-Sidra, one of Libya's main oil export terminals, has been a major challenge to the authority of the central government. The port has been held for months by eastern fighters demanding more regional autonomy from Tripoli. The incident involving the tanker marks the easterners' first attempt to sell oil.

Adel al-Tarhouni of the Libyan Revolution Operation Room, a pro-government militia, said the ship's captain surrendered in the evening. It had been surrounded by a pro-government flotilla, reportedly including fishing boats armed with mortars and rocket launchers operated by militias, for two days.

Libyan Culture Minister Habib al-Ameen said at a news conference that the oil tanker was under control of the naval forces. Al-Ameen denied militias were involved on the government side, saying the operation was carried out by "national forces." He said an attempt to resist was met with force, but there were no casualties. He said that due to technical problems the tanker had not left the port but was in the process of being led out to another port.

But Essam al-Jahani, affiliated to the eastern militia, denied the government's claims. He said his group arrested some pro-government fighters.

The conflicting accounts could not be independently reconciled, and neither side immediately presented proof of its claim.

Officials say the tanker is believed to be owned by a Gulf businessman.

Libya's central government has been weak since the 2011 overthrow of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The east has been hit by a particularly acute security vacuum. Militias rooted in anti-Gadhafi rebels, some with extreme Islamic militant ideologies, are blamed for attacks on security officers and others. Foreigners have also been targeted.

The Libyan news agency LANA said that the body of an Indian doctor was found Monday with gunshot wounds in the eastern city of Derna, which is a stronghold of the extremists.