Ousted PM left Libya on way to 'another European country'

Libya's Prime Minister Ali Zeidan speaks during a news conference on March 8, 2014, in the capital, Tripoli.

Story highlights

  • State media in North Korea says temporary registry for tanker has been canceled
  • Acting PM says predecessor free to leave, return for legal proceedings
  • Abdullah al-Thinni says Libyan navy tracked oil tanker after it got through blockade
  • Cairo says it will board the tanker if it enters Egyptian waters

The whereabouts of ousted Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan were a mystery Wednesday after he flew out of the country the night before, despite a prosecutor's order he not leave after his removal from office.

Zeidan was in Malta late Tuesday on a refueling stop for about two hours while en route to "another European country," Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said in televised remarks.

As of Wednesday, it was unclear which country that was or if he had arrived there.

Libya's acting Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Abdullah al-Thinni told reporters Wednesday that -- despite the prosecutor's order -- there was no ban and Zeidan was free to leave.

"If there is a warrant ... if he is wanted by the judiciary, he can return and be held accountable according to the law and international norms. And this is not considered fleeing," al-Thinni said, contradicting an earlier statement from the Ministry of Justice.

Hours earlier, the North African country's parliament dismissed the prime minister after rebels in eastern Libya said a tanker loaded with oil from a port under their control escaped a naval blockade and moved into international waters.

Libya's prosecutor general said in Tripoli he had banned Zeidan from traveling abroad because of an investigation relating to a payment the government allegedly made last year to an armed group blocking oil ports in the east.

A copy of the travel ban, dated March 11, was posted on his press office's Facebook page marked "urgent and important."

"We order placing the aforementioned in the monitoring database and banning him from travel until he appears for the investigation," said the order, addressed to the head of Libya's immigration department.

Oil chaos

The vote of no-confidence came after Zeidan's failure to stop rebels from exporting oil independently, the latest challenge in the vast desert nation's bumpy transition.

The Libyan government said late Monday it had taken control of the North Korean-flagged tanker, Morning Glory, as it tried to leave the Al-Sidra port in eastern Libya, and after having briefly exchanged fire with rebels. However, in a sign of the chaos and conflicting information typical for Libya, the rebels rejected the assertion.

On Wednesday, al-Thinni said the tanker was at sea where Libyan military forces fired on it until they were called off by the U.S. Navy for fear of an environmental disaster. The oil tanker managed to sail away despite a fire on board, he said.

A spokesman for Egypt's military, Col. Ahmed Ali, said on Wednesday that its navy will monitor Egyptian waters for the oil tanker.

If the Egyptian navy finds the Morning Glory in Egyptian waters, authorities will demand to board and inspect the vessel to verify that the ship's cargo is legal and properly authorized, Ali said.

Egyptian authorities will detain the ship if they find it to be violating of any laws or regulations.

A North Korean state news agency said that while the ship had been temporarily flagged in North Korea, it is operated by the Golden East Logistics Company in Alexandria, Egypt. KCNA also wrote that North Korea notified the International Maritime Organization that the ship owners had violated North Korean law. It said Pyongyang had canceled and deleted the ship's registry.

Oil slump

Oil production, Libya's economic lifeline, has slowed to a trickle since the summer as armed protesters have seized oil ports and oil fields to press political and financial demands. Oil revenue in the first two months of the year was only 16% of what was expected in the budget, Deputy Oil Minister Omar Shukmak said.

They are seeking a greater share of the country's oil revenue, as well as autonomy for eastern Libya.

Al-Thinni said the military would not fight the protesters in the ports.

"There will be no use of force against Libyan citizens," he said.

The conflict over oil wealth is stoking fears Libya may slide deeper into chaos as the fragile government fails to rein in the armed brigades that helped oust Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 but now do as they please.

The removal of Zeidan, a liberal weakened for months by infighting with Islamists, deepens the turmoil in the country of 6 million people.