LONDON (Reuters) - A tanker arrived at an east Libyan port on Tuesday to load the first crude cargo since unrest shut down exports in early March with mystery surrounding the potential buyer of oil from the rebel held territory.
AIS live ship tracking data on Reuters showed the Liberian-registered tanker Equator, which can carry up to 1 million barrels of oil, had arrived at Marsa el Hariga port.
"It appears to be in ballast with no cargo," a shipping source said, referring to the depth of a vessel in the water which gives an indication of whether it is loaded.
An official with the vessel's Greek operators, Dynacom Tankers Management Ltd, declined to give details on the tanker.
"There is nothing I can tell you right now on this issue," he told Reuters.
The expected shipment will be the first in weeks since an uprising against Muammar Gaddafi halted exports, although it was unclear who had hired the vessel or its ultimate destination.
Trade sources said the buyer would likely keep a low profile given sanctions still in place against Libya and heavy fighting.
The rebel-led government said it had concluded a deal with Qatar to market crude oil and had discussed plans with a U.N. envoy to exempt its oil exports from sanctions that have been imposed on Gaddafi entities.
Italian oil and gas group Eni has contacted rebels in Benghazi about energy cooperation, moving to protect its role as Libya's top foreign oil operator.
"A sustainable source of income from oil exports will send a strong signal that the opposition is there to stay and only can grow as it tries to bring more and more crude exports onstream," said IHS Energy senior analyst Samuel Ciszuk.
"(Eni's) official inception of ties with the rebels indicates that the company at least is starting to hedge its bets."
Before the unrest, Libya was producing around 1.6 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil and exporting some 1.3 million bpd. Since its exports halted, Brent crude futures have risen to around $120 a barrel from around $100 before.
"We are assuming that most, if not all, of the Libyan volumes will be offline for the balance of the year but that the region will see no new physical supply outages," CIBC World Markets said in a report last week.
Shipping sources said last week Libyan oil shipments were at a standstill, with no one attempting to hire tankers due to violence and the impact of sanctions on Gaddafi.
NATO has also been enforcing a U.N. arms embargo in international waters aimed at stopping the "flow of arms and mercenaries" to Gaddafi. Ship officials said the move may add disruptions for Libya bound vessels.
A Libyan-owned ship carrying a cargo of imported petrol docked at a government-controlled port on Tuesday despite the cordon.
Jakob Larsen, maritime security officer with BIMCO, the world's largest private shipowners' association, said a tanker had been diverted last month by coalition naval units.
"The current wording of the U.N. Security Council resolution leaves considerable room for interpretation as to which cargoes are regarded as contraband and can therefore not be discharged legally in Libya," he said.
"For charters and shipowners, this uncertainty introduces an undesirable element of commercial risk for cargoes meant for Libya."
Larsen said there was currently no guidance for merchant vessels entering rebel areas as the U.N. resolution did not distinguish between pro-Gaddafi and rebel forces.
"If a ship would be going into rebel controlled territory then it potentially could be subject to enforcement," he said.
(Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou in Athens)
(Editing by William Hardy and Anthony Barker)