By Tsvetana Paraskova
Malta’s authorities have failed to act to prevent an oil smuggling ring sneaking fuel out of Libya into Malta, despite the fact that the ringleaders of the illicit transfers have been arrested by Italian police and Libyan authorities, an investigation by the Daphne Project reveals.
The Daphne Project was created several months ago, after Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb outside her home.
A group of 45 journalists representing 18 news organizations from 15 countries picked up the investigative work of the murdered journalist.
The project’s reporters have focused on the oil and fuel smuggling from Libya, in which a former Maltese soccer star, Darren Debono, and a Libyan militia chief, Fahmi Ben Khalifa, teamed up and enlisted a man connected to one of the families of the Cosa Nostra mafia clan in Sicily to help them create the oil smuggling business that raked in millions of euros in sales.
After the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the civil unrest that ensued, Libyan refineries fell to various militias — including one in Zawiya, which Italian police say came under Ben Khalifa’s control.
Instead of defending the refinery, the militia stole diesel from it, and smuggled it out of Libya to sell it illegally in Mediterranean countries, including Malta, Italy, Spain, and Turkey.
It’s not clear how much total profits the smugglers made, but according to Italian authorities, the smuggling ring made at least US$30.8 million (26 million euro) selling fuel to just one Italian buyer.
According to the Daphne Project’s sources in Maltese fishing cooperatives, Malta’s authorities were leaving fuel ship-to-ship transfers undisturbed, and even allowed the vessels to dock at bunkering facilities without being checked by the coast guard.
Ben Khalifa has been in custody in Libya since August last year, while Italian authorities arrested Darren Debono in October.
Nevertheless, oil smuggling has not stopped, and according to police, the warlord bosses of Ben Khalifa are reorganizing the illicit sales operation, the Daphne Project reporters write.
Last month, Mustafa Sanalla, Chairman of Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC), said that organized fuel smuggling costs Libya’s economy more than US$750 million annually and called on Libyan institutions and authorities, and the international community such as Interpol, CEPOL and EuroPol, “to act on a series of measures that can disable and dismantle smuggling networks.”
In February this year, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned six individuals—including Debono and Ben Khalifa—as well as 24 entities and seven vessels “for threatening the peace, security, or stability of Libya through the illicit production, refining, brokering, sale, purchase, or export of Libyan oil or for being owned or controlled by designated persons.”
Tsvetana Paraskova is a writer for the U.S.-based Divergente LLC consulting firm with over a decade of experience writing for news outlets such as iNVEZZ and SeeNews.