It was a Monday morning in March when two US Navy Seals tried to take control of a North Korean-flagged tanker off the coast of Cyprus.
The Morning Glory was carrying 35 million euros’ worth of crude oil stolen by Libyan anti-government insurgents from the national petrol company and loaded at the rebel-held port of al-Sidra on Libya’s eastern coast. News of the takeover made headlines around the world as it was this diplomatic thriller that led to Prime Minister Ali Zeidan being voted out of power.
“There was intelligence suggesting that the shipment was destined for Syria,” a senior Cypriot official with knowledge of the matter told Kathimerini recently on condition of anonymity. “We had an international obligation to respond to a request by Libya to stop the sale of the stolen oil. But as we didn’t have the operational capacity, the takeover was handled by the US Navy Seals.”
A months later and after the tanker returned to the port of Tripoli, two Greeks (a former captain who worked as a broker at a firm in Dubai and a shipowner based in the United Arab Emirates) launched negotiations to acquire the tanker. “The Libyan crew members have been freed. The last Pakistani is also expected to be let go within the next few days,” said an e-mail sent to the Greek shipowner by a Greek businessman involved in shipping in Libya and with knowledge of developments. “Therefore, any moves should be made now that the ship is still in Libya.”
From information collection by Kathimerini in Greece, Cyprus and the Middle East, it emerges that the two Greeks who were involved in the Morning Glory issue are also among the key figures in the case of a 2-ton heroin shipment intercepted in June by the Greek authorities, which had come into the port of Elefsina on the Noor One.
The Morning Glory episode began when it set sail from Eritrea in February for Tunisia. Captain Noman Baig, tracked down by Kathimerini in Lahore, Pakistan, revealed that on the day before setting sail, the owner of the ship had replaced the Liberian flag with that of North Korea. A few days later, the 36-year-old captain, who was helming a vessel for just the second time in his career, would come to understand why this was done.
“While we were in the Suez I was ordered to head to Libya instead of Tunisia,” said Baig. “I knew that the situation in the country was not entirely safe but I did not have a clear picture of all the details.”
On the morning of March 8, the Morning Glory was seized by rebels off the coast of Libya.
“Captain, the armed men are not security personnel but rebels. The port of al-Sidra is entirely under our control,” Baig said he was told by one of the insurgents who came up to the bridge.
At the port of al-Sidra, the Morning Glory loaded 350,000 barrels of crude oil. “The owner of the ship [Saud Al Anazi] initially asked me to stop the fuel from being loaded,” said Baig. “He later announced that he’d sold the tanker to the rebels and urged me to obey their commands.”
On the orders of the pirates, the tanker set sail for Egypt at 5 a.m. on March 11. Baig says that the tanker was chased by armed men in a speed boat, who ordered him to sail the ship to the port of Misrata. Baig managed to lose the pursuers thanks to the help of a NATO vessel that led the tanker to an area 14 miles southeast of Cyprus.
“By noon the pursuit vessel had caught up with us and come within 1 nautical mile of the tanker. They were firing at the tanker. They demanded that I change direction to Misrata. One of their shots hit the ship and started a fire,” said Baig. “I issued a distress signal and coalition warship 55 responded.”
Three people who had flown into Larnaca on a private airplane visited the Morning Glory while it was anchored off Cyprus. They were arrested as soon as they returned to Cyprus.
“One was an Israeli national and had a diplomatic passport, while the other two identified themselves as nationals of a Central African country,” said the Cypriot Foreign Ministry official.
It has emerged that they were trying to negotiate the purchase of the oil and to have it pumped onto another vessel.
According to the Pakistani captain, the Morning Glory belonged to the Dubai-based Saud Shipping company. Baig says that he was receiving orders directly from the company’s owner, Saud Al Anazi.
“When we were off the coast of Cyprus, I got a telephone call from the previous owner,” recounted Baig. “‘Why are you calling me since you sold the ship?’ I asked. ‘I’m worried about the crew,’ Saud said. He then said he wanted a favor, he wanted me to transport the oil onto another ship that would sail up to us. I refused. I told him that the oil was illegal and I had loaded it at gunpoint. He offered me money, five years’ worth of salary. ‘I am not interested in a single penny,’ I told him.”
A representative of a London communications firm that was involved in the Morning Glory crisis management, told Kathimerini that the registered owner of the tanker at the time was Sea Pride Shipping Inc, based in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, adding that Sea Pride is in a legal dispute with Saud Shipping over the “operational control” of the tanker.
The same source said that Sea Pride belongs to a group of companies run by the Al Sari family, which controls Horizon Energy in the UAE.
Until his arrest over the heroin haul, 60-year-old Greek businessman Giorgos B., or “Captain George,” worked as a broker for Horizon Energy.
In March and April, before his arrest, as information gathered by Kathimerini shows, Giorgos B. tried to negotiate with the Libyan government and judicial authorities in order to have the ship released from custody and readmitted into the fleet of Horizon Energy.
He had been planning to use the firm of a Greek shipper who is also facing charges over the drug seizure.
The Greek drug operation scuppered the plan and the Morning Glory remains docked in Tripoli and is owned by the Libyan state, while Baig is still trying to get the documents that were seized from him in Libya.