ES SIDER, Libya, March 11 (Reuters) – A North Korean-flagged tanker that loaded crude oil at a rebel-held port in eastern Libya is now in international waters, rebels at the harbour and a state oil company official said on Tuesday.
If confirmed, the news would be a huge embarrassment for the government after top officials including Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said late on Monday the navy had seized the tanker and would escort it to a harbour controlled by Tripoli.
The tanker had docked on Saturday at Es Sider, one of three ports controlled by rebels who want to sell oil independently to get a greater share of Libya's mineral wealth.
The Libyan navy and oil-related government officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment.
Mohammad Hitab, spokesman for the state-run al-Waha Oil Company operating the Es Sider port, said: "The tanker left and is now in international waters."
He said he did not know the destination of the tanker, which Libyan officials have said is owned by a Saudi company.
A Reuters reporter at the port said there was no sign of any tanker. Several rebels and port workers sympathising with them said the ship had left early in the morning, with boats escorting it into international waters.
"We escorted the tanker out of the port at 3 a.m.," said one rebel fighter at the harbour. He said he had been on board one of five armed rebel boats which, according to him, accompanied the tanker out of the port area.
The conflict over oil wealth is increasing fears that the OPEC member country may slide deeper into chaos or splinter as the government fails to rein in dozens of militias that helped oust Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but now defy state authority.
The rebels also demand autonomy for the east, which had been neglected under Gaddafi as he concentrated power and wealth in Tripoli as well as his home region of Sirte.
(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli in Es Sider, and Feras Bosalum and Ulf Laessing in Tripoli; Editing by Dale Hudson)
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