SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea on Thursday denied any responsibility for an oil tanker that loaded crude from a Libyan rebel-held port and fled the OPEC member state's attempt to seize it, saying the vessel that carried its flag was linked to an Egyptian firm.
The incident marked the first sale of Libyan crude bypassing the government and was a huge humiliation for Tripoli as it struggled to rein in armed militias who helped oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but want to grab power and oil revenues.
Libya's parliament ousted Prime Minister Ali Zeidan on Tuesday after rebels loaded crude at Es Sider terminal onto the North Korean-flagged tanker that later fled naval forces amid reports of a gunfight as it sailed off along Libya's eastern Mediterranean coast.
It was unclear where the tanker had planned to sail. The North Korean flag is considered a flag of convenience, which is used to keep the ownership secret.
North Korea said the tanker violated its laws and a contract with the Alexandria-based company by carrying contraband cargo. It said it had notified Libya and the International Maritime Organization that it had severed all association with the ship.
"Therefore, the ship has nothing to do with the DPRK at present and it has no responsibility whatsoever as regards the ship," the North's Maritime Administration said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.
DPRK is short for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The agency said it had temporarily allowed the Egyptian firm Golden East Logistics to use its flag under a six-month contract signed in late February. It said the firm ignored its demand to leave the rebel-held Libyan port without loading oil.
Contacted by Reuters, Golden East Logistics said it had been responsible for the vessel's certification until its North Korean flag was canceled earlier this week but was not the operator and had no knowledge of its cargo, whereabouts or ultimate destination.
"Our company only represents the certification management and nothing else and we have no relation, from near or far, to the operation of the said vessel nor its commercial management nor the undertaking of any agreements regarding its cargoes," Golden East said in an emailed statement.
It was unusual for an oil tanker flagged in secretive North Korea to operate in the Mediterranean, shipping sources said. It had changed ownership in the past few weeks, a source said.
It was not clear what flag the vessel was now carrying and its tracking device appeared to be switched off.
Western diplomats worry the conflict over oil might dismember Libya as rebels demand autonomy for the east, which was neglected under Gaddafi as he concentrated power and wealth in Tripoli as well as his home region of Sirte.
(Reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul and Lin Noueihed in London, editing by David Evans)