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Trapped at sea, tanker captain craved salvation from Libya rebels

Crew members of the tanker Morning Glory which was seized by U.S. forces after loading oil at a Libyan port held by anti-government rebels,
Crew members of the tanker Morning Glory which was seized by U.S. forces after loading oil at a Libyan port held by anti-government rebels,

By Ulf Laessing

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Pakistani sea captain Mirza Noman Baig knew he was trapped when dozens of fighters armed with rifles boarded his tanker just off a rebel-held port on Libya's coast.

A militia from the country's restive east forced his crew to load oil onto Baig's vessel, the Morning Glory, and demanded they escape the navy before the ship was stormed by U.S. special forces on March 16, according to his account of events.

After their two-week journey, the 38-year-old captain and his crew are now being held at a police facility in a southern area of the Libyan capital.

Authorities plan to send them home after concluding an investigation into the attempted sale of the oil by the rebel militia, who are campaigning for a greater share of petroleum wealth and more eastern autonomy.

"We were in a hostage situation. We had no choice but to follow the orders (of the rebels)," Baig said, in his first interview since docking at Es Sider port, one of three oil export terminals captured by anti-government gunmen.

The tanker saga reflects growing turmoil in OPEC oil producer Libya, where the government is unable to stop militias who helped oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but refuse to disarm and now seize oil facilities at will.

Baig said the ship's owner, which changed last month, had told him to load oil in Libya after crossing the Suez Canal without informing him that his destination was a rebel port.

"We were drifting away 30 miles off (the coast). The pilot (of the port escort boat) came onboard, and the security people came onboard," he said.

"We cannot do anything. They had guns," he said. Shipping data confirmed the Morning Glory had circled for days near Es Sider before docking.

"The owner just told me (to go to Libya) but he didn't tell me how the situation was, is this the central part or I don't know. I don't know what the situation is in that area," he said, standing in front of a small cell where he is being held with five other crew members sleeping in white bunk beds.

He said up to 35 armed rebels had boarded the ship when docking at the port. The rebels have denied that they forced the crew to act at gunpoint.

When the ship left Es Sider after loading crude, and with only three rebels onboard, Baig was told to travel away from the Libyan coast, he said. However, the tanker ran into a firefight with Libyan naval forces before moving into Cypriot waters, according to government officials.

According to Baig, when he asked the militiamen or the owner where the ship was heading, "They said they would tell us later."

Nearby, other crew members were having lunch - rice and meat - on the floor in their cells while he spoke.

With his captors busy, he called his wife in Lahore with the ship's satellite phone. She alerted various governments, he said. He also called the police in Cyprus and NATO forces, after which U.S. Navy SEALs stormed the ship late at night.

The U.S. commandos later handcuffed the three rebels and escorted the tanker back to Tripoli, where it is moored, Libyan officials said.

He said the owner kept saying the final sale of the oil would be arranged, but Baig asserted: "I was telling them that I am not interested. I want my crew to go home. We don't want anything, we don't want any of the oil. You trapped us on this."

GOING HOME

Libya's attorney general has issued orders to release and expel the 21 crew members, who come from Pakistan, India, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Syria and other countries, but so far they remain stuck in a nondescript, one-storey detention facility.

Reuters was allowed to speak to the crew on the condition they would not discuss the investigation.

Interrupted only by occasional visits from embassy staff, the crew have time to pray in front of their cells, which are open. A gate locks them into the wing where they are staying.

"People treat us very nicely. We get three meals a day," Baig said. "As far as we are here we don't have any problem but we are just waiting to go home because we are passing from this very tough time."

But his crew was still waiting to get back their personal belongings such as clothes, laptops, cash and shipping documents such as seaman's books needed to continue their careers.

"We need those documents. They are very important to us," he said.

A Sri Lankan crew member said: "We want our clothes. This I am wearing for days," pointing to his orange jumpsuit.

Baig said the crew had not been paid for two months.

"A few crew members, they don't have a single dollar in their pockets," he said. "When they go to their countries they don't have money to go from the airport to go home."

(Editing by Dale Hudson)

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