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Italian fishing boat attacked by Libyan coast guard

An Italian fishing boat was reportedly attacked and “heavily damaged” by the Libyan Coast Guard in international waters on the Mediterranean. Nobody was seriously injured.

Earlier this week, an Orizzonte (Horizon) Italian fishing boat was reportedly attacked by a Libyan Coast guard motor boat in the Mediterranean south of Sicily.

The boat was attacked by a blast of machine gun fire, the head of an Italian ship-owners group said in a Tuesday (July 18) press release, news agency Reuters reports.

Fabio Micalizzi, head of the Sicilian Shipowners Federation, said the Orizzonte had been sailing around 94 miles north of the Libyan city of Misrata in international waters when the attack took place. The vessel was damaged, he said, but there were no serious injuries among the captain and crew on board.

From file: A video frame provided by Sea Watch, which denounces the behavior of Libyan coast guards: ‘people were hit and forced to go back’ | Photo: Sea Watch / ANSA

‘Unprecedented act of violence’

“This unprecedented act of violence has deeply shaken the Sicilian maritime community and requires a decisive and immediate response from Italian and international institutions,” Micalizzi said in the press release, reports Reuters.

Also read: Lampedusa fishermen announce protest against use of vessels for migrant transfers

Micalizzi said the ship-owners federation was considering whether or not they could sue the Libyan authorities for the attack. He said the Coast Guard boat used for the assault “appears to have been donated by Italy” as part of the Italy-Libya agreement designed to offer funds and training to the Libyan coast guard in return for increased migration controls along the Libyan coast.

Journalist Sergio Scandura, who frequently reports on migrant issues for the Italian radio station Radio Radicale, echoed Micalizzi’s observation. On his Twitter page on July 20, he posted a picture of one of the crew members displaying a wound he says he sustained in the attack.

In the text of the tweet, Scandura says that although pictures of the Libyan vessel have not been made public, some who have seen pictures have identified it as the patrol ship Corrubia, an ex-Guardia di Finanza (Italian tax and border police) vessel given to the Libyan coast guard.

The Libyan government has not yet commented on the allegations, but a source at the Italian foreign ministry told Reuters that they believed the Libyans had attacked the boat because it was fishing in their waters.

Italian navy sends help

An Italian naval ship was sent to intervene to stop the Italian fishing vessel from being impounded — and because the damage to the boat’s steering mechanism rendered it “uncontrollable”, online Italian newspaper reports. The Orizzonte made its way back to Italy shortly after.

A fishing ship registered with the name Orizzonte was docked in the Siracusa harbor on July 21, but there are several fishing vessels with that name operating around southern Italy, so it is not clear if this is the same ship.

Also read: Why are so many migrants arriving on Italy’s shores?

According to Italian state TV’s regional news Rai TGR in Sicily, the captain and crew were able to “miraculously save themselves” during the attack “but their ship was left ungovernable.”

TGR also reported that the Libyan coast guard had confiscated telephone sim cards from crew aboard the fishing boat, making it difficult to communicate what had happened. Their satellite phone was also damaged in the attack.

From file: Fishing boats are often caught up in attacks and controls in the Mediterranean. They sometimes provide help to migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean too | Photo: Courtesy of Giulia Bertoluzzi, Strange Fish and Small Boss productions

Sim cards confiscated

However, fishing boat crew members managed to get word to the Sicilian shipping federation, (Federazione armatori siciliani) before their sim cards were confiscated. The federation launched a “desperate appeal” on their behalf.

“The ship was well outside Libyan waters, and in international waters,” Nino Moscuzza, owner of the fishing ship, told Scandura in a Radio Radicale interview. “We think that they were shot at by a Kalashnikov, which damaged the ship’s cabin and steering. They then entered the ship and took the crew’s sim codes and satellite phone, so we weren’t able to speak to them. We raised the alarm with the command in Rome and they scrambled a helicopter to check out what was going on.”

Moscuzza said at least €30,000 worth of fishing equipment had been left in the sea and still needed to be retrieved.

He added he doesn’t know how the fishermen will be able to continue to fish, because they feel unsupported by the Italian government in Rome.

If these things could take place even in international waters, he said, then what protection was there for fishers?

Accusations of ‘acts of piracy’

Moscuzza accused other Libyan patrol boats in the past of carrying out “acts of piracy” against fishing crews, boarding boats to steal “money, jewelry, even wedding rings, fuel, cigarettes, anything they could get their hands on.”

Also read: ‘Strange fish’ film highlights Tunisian fishers’ role as migrant rescuers

Scandura suggested that perhaps these kinds of events were happening even more often since the search-and-rescue zones had been re-delineated, allowing the Libyans to patrol far outside their own territorial waters.

On July 19, Scandura posted a short video on his Twitter page of the ship’s captain Carmelo Trigilio showing where some of the bullets had hit the ship.

#Orizzonte Quel motopesca italiano – toh, pensate, urca, i-t-a-l-i-a-n-o, cari “patrioti” cialtroni a vario totolo – mitragliato e preso d’assalto dai criminali libici con un pattugliatore Made In Italy. Da tenere ben nascosto. Guai a parlarne.

— Sergio Scandura (@scandura) July 21, 2023

According to the website Itamilradar, which says it monitors military aircraft movements over Italy and the Mediterranean sea, this is “not the first time that such attacks have occured” from the Libyan coast guard.

They commented the Libyan forces showed “a complete disregard for the most basic principles of maritime law and international law.”

Past attacks

In May 2021, another Italian fishing boat was fired at by a boat donated by Italy to the Libyan coast guard in 2018, according to reporting by the Italian news agency ANSA and the British newspaper The Guardian.

Massoud Abdalsamad, a Libyan coastguard colonel, told Italian media that his men had fired “warning shots into the air against vessels which had allegedly trespassed into Libyan waters.”

“It is a miracle we are alive. We were shot at. The cabin of our boat is full of holes,” Giuseppe Giacalone, the captain of the fishing trawler, told ANSA.

The 2021 incident isn’t the first. Italian fishing boats have been attacked by the Libyan authorities going back to the mid-1990s in a proprietary conflict known in the Italian media as the “War of the Gambero Rosso [Red Prawn]”, a much prized prawn found in waters between Italy and the coast of North Africa, according to The Guardian.

A cooperative in Sicily representing stakeholders in the fishing industry, Distretto della Pesca, told The Guardian at the time that at least 60 boats had been seized or confiscated and about 40 fishers detained in the 25 years prior to 2021 during this “war.”

Just a year before, in September 2020, two fishing boats were approached by Libyan patrol boats. The vessels and crew were impounded and detained in Benghazi, eastern Libya, in an area controlled by General Khalifa Haftar.

Detained in Libya

The crew were held in Libya for more than 100 days before eventually being freed in December 2020 after a political standoff between Italy and Libya.

From file: The private rescue ship Ocean Viking has also registered several attacks at the hands of the Libyan coast guard in the past, the most recent accusations occurred at the beginning of 2023 | Photo: SOS Mediterranee

The Libyan coast guard have also been repeatedly accused of attacking and threatening migrant boats and private NGO rescue ships sailing in the Mediterranean. The most recent was earlier in July.

And in March 2023, the crew of the Ocean Viking search-and-rescue ship operated by SOS Mediterranee accused the Libyan coast guard of shooting at them while they were attempting to rescue migrants from a boat off the Libyan coast. The shots forced them to flee, they said.

SOS Mediterranee said the incident was already the second time this year that their crews had been put in danger by the Libyan coast guard when attempting to rescue migrants.

With Reuters and ANSA

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Italian fishing boat attacked by Libyan coast guard


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