Libyan coastguards have seized two foreign tankers allegedly smuggling oil off the central coast of the country.
"The Libyan coastguard boarded the two tankers, one flying the Ukrainian flag, the Ruta, and the other, the Stark, flying the Congolese flag," said General Ayoub Qassem on Sunday about the operation which took place two days earlier two kilometers (1.2 miles) off Sidi Said near the town of Zuwara.
The general said the vessels were spotted on Thursday but fighting began in order to seize them earlier on Friday when the crew, heavily armed and supported by small boats, began to put up a fierce resistance. Qassem said that the Libyans eventually seized the tankers "after more than three hours of exchange of fire."
The tankers and the crew are reportedly under custody in the capital Tripoli in Libya’s western coast.
The crew included 14 Ukrainians from the Ruta and four Turks and two Georgians on the Stark. Three staff from the Stark remained anonymous. Reports said the crew would face prosecution in Tripoli.
Authorities said Ruta had around 3,330 tons of oil in its tanks at the time of seizure while the Stark was about to be loaded with fuel when it was boarded by the coastguards. The vessel can carry 1,236 tons of oil.
Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, an estimated 48 billion barrels. It used to produce 1.6 million barrels per day before the 2011 ouster of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Chaos that has gripped the country since has also affected oil production as rivals in the east and west vie for more share of the oil income.