TRIPOLI: 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 US 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.
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 on board, and the security people came on board,” 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.
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 on board, 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.”
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 US Navy SEALs stormed the ship late at night.
The US 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.”
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.
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.
“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,” Baig said.
But his crew is still waiting to get back their personal belongings.