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Tanker with contraband oil steams toward Libya overseen by U.S. sailors

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A tanker carrying contraband Libyan oil was headed toward Libya on Wednesday after being seized this week by U.S. commandos in the Mediterranean, the Pentagon said, adding that U.S. sailors were supervising the ship's crew and detaining the Libyan rebels who had spirited the vessel out of port.

The North Korean-flagged Morning Glory, which was disavowed by Pyongyang over the incident, was expected to arrive in international waters near Libya in two to three days, a Pentagon spokesman said. Discussions continued about the fate of the rebels and the ship.

"I don't know that we've come to a final decision but the discussion is that we will turn them over to the government of Libya," said Army Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman.

Warren said the Morning Glory was being escorted by the USS Stout, a guided-missile destroyer, and that 25 U.S. sailors were embarked aboard the tanker, overseeing the crew and detaining the three Libyan rebels who had taken control.

"They're supervising the transit, along with performing security, navigation and communications tasks," he said. "The USS Stout is escorting the Morning Glory towards Libya. The three Libyans who had taken control of the Morning Glory remain now under U.S. control aboard the Morning Glory."

Warren said the U.S. SEAL commando team that originally boarded the Morning Glory from an inflatable boat early on Monday as it sat off Cyprus had been removed from the tanker. The SEALs took control of the vessel in less than two hours with no one hurt and no shots fired.

Warren said the Morning Glory was expected to arrive off Libyan territorial waters in two to three days, when the ship will receive instructions about a final destination in Libya.

In addition to the Libyan gunmen, Warren said, the ship had an international crew of 21 people: six Pakistanis, six Indians, three Sri Lankans, two Syrians, two Sudanese and two Eritreans.

The Morning Glory was loaded with oil at Es Sider, a Libyan port controlled by anti-government rebels who intended to sell the crude on the global market.

Gunmen demanding regional autonomy and a share of the oil wealth had loaded the ship and eluded the Libyan navy to get to international waters, triggering a political crisis in Tripoli that toppled the prime minister.

The United States intervened militarily after being asked to do so by the governments of Libya and Cyprus, U.S. officials said.

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by David Gregorio)

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