* Tanker reported to have been seized on Tuesday
* Ship belongs to Libyan government’s shipping arm
* Vessel reported to be carrying 40,000 tonnes of gasoline
(Updates with arrival in Benghazi, details)
By David Brunnstrom
BRUSSELS, Aug 4 (Reuters) – A Libyan tanker reported to have been seized by rebels opposing Muammar Gaddafi arrived in the rebel-held port of Benghazi on Thursday after being cleared to proceed by NATO ships enforcing an arms embargo, NATO said.
Sources familiar with the situation told Reuters on Wednesday that suspected Libyan rebels seized the tanker Cartagena, which belongs to the Libyan government’s shipping arm, off Malta and set course for Benghazi.
NATO officials said NATO forces enforcing a U.N. arms embargo on Libya imposed after Gaddafi used military force to try to crush a rebellion, had hailed the ship in the Mediterranean and cleared it to proceed.
“We just received news that Cartagena has entered the port of Benghazi,” said David Taylor, maritime spokesman for NATO’s Libya operation, which also involves a campaign of air strikes.
“We hailed her yesterday afternoon we were satisfied as to the ship’s condition and she was allowed to proceed,” he said. “There was no reason not to allow this vessel to proceed.”
Taylor declined to comment on a report in a petroleum industry newsletter, the Petroleum Economist, that the Cartagena was seized on Tuesday night by anti-Gaddafi rebels with the help of special forces from a European state.
NATO military spokesman Colonel Roland Lavoie said earlier that during the NATO hailing process “there were no such indications”, but gave no more details.
COMPANY CONTROLLED BY GADDAFI’S SON
The vessel belongs to Libya’s General National Maritime Transport Company, which is believed to be controlled by Gaddafi’s son Hannibal, who is on a U.N. sanctions list and subject to an asset freeze and a travel ban.
The Petroleum Economist said the Cartagena was carrying almost 40,000 tonnes of gasoline. It said the ship was originally chartered to land the fuel in Tripoli and had been stranded in the Mediterranean after NATO began intercepting seaborne fuel supplies for Gaddafi in May.
While not specifically charged with enforcing a fuel embargo on Libya, NATO said in May it had intercepted an oil tanker which it said it had reason to believe was set to deliver fuel to Gaddafi’s forces.
It said then it would continue to do so on a case-by-case basis. The Petroleum Economist said the rebels acted without the knowledge of the Benghazi-based rebel council.
It quoted “a source familiar with the operation” as saying a European government had lent logistical support to the operation, which it said was believed to have involved special forces boarding the ship from the air.
Rebels fighting Gaddafi also seized a Libyan state-owned gasoline tanker carrying gasoline to Libya for the National Oil Corporation in March.
According to a Western diplomatic source speaking to Reuters last month, the Cartagena was prevented from reaching Tripoli not only by a hardening NATO line on fuel imports by Gaddafi but a captain with sympathies with the rebels.
The tanker loaded gasoline in a Turkish port. The Swiss company that sold the ship the fuel said the buyer had duped it by placing Tripoli, Lebanon, as the destination.
But when it left the port in early May, carrying enough fuel to fill nearly a million cars, it sailed west, to Lebanon, but its actual destination was Zawiyah, the main oil port adjacent to the Libyan capital.
NATO initially rubber-stamped the deal, saying the gasoline shipment to Libyan distribution company Al Sharara Libya Oil and Gas “concerns”, according to a May 4 fax obtained by Reuters and apparently sent in response to a request for NATO clearance.
But while the Cartagena was en route to Zawiyah, NATO intercepted the other west-Libya bound fuel tanker and the Cartagena spent the next month anchored off the Mediterranean island of Malta while the Libyan government tried to come up with another means of unloading it.