North Korea denies role in tanker loaded with crude at rebel-held Libya port

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea denied on Thursday 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 operated by 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 on 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.

North Korea said the tanker violated its laws, and a contract with the Alexandria-based company by carrying contraband cargo, and it had notified Libya and the International Maritime Organization of severing 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. The firm ignored its demand to leave the rebel-held Libyan port without loading oil, the agency said.

It was unclear where the tanker had planned to sail. Libyan officials said the ship was flagged in North Korea, a flag of convenience to keep the ownership secret.

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.

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)