Italian government supplied vessel to help Tripoli control flow of migrants in Mediterranean.
An Italian fisher wounded when his trawler was machined-gunned by the Libyan coastguard was fired on from a boat supplied by Italy’s government to help Tripoli control the flow of migrants.
Libyan authorities, who say the coastguard vessel fired warning shots into the air, said three Italian fishing vessels had entered Libyan territorial waters without authorisation before the incident on Thursday, the latest episode in a territorial dispute involving crews from the Sicilian port of Mazara del Vallo who fish for red prawns off the Libyan coast.
The fishers were freed following the intervention of an Italian navy vessel, which also managed to rescue the man after his arm was injured in a volley of machine-gun fire.
The Italian navy confirmed the patrol boat that fired the shots was the former Italian coastguard patrol boat 660, nicknamed Ubari, which was provided to the Libyans in November 2018 to intercept migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
It followed a 2017 deal signed by Italy’s former interior minister Marco Minniti and the leader of Libya’s UN-backed government, Fayez al-Sarraj, to train and equip its coastguard.
The deal empowered the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrant boats at sea and redirect them to Libya, where aid agencies say refugees are abused and tortured.
The Libyan coastguard colonel Massoud Abdalsamad told Italian media his men “fired warning shots into the air against vessels which had allegedly trespassed into Libyan waters”. He was approached for comment but has not responded.
A Guardian investigation revealed in April that Massoud had been wire-tapped by Italian prosecutors investigating sea rescue charities for alleged complicity in people smuggling .
On one occasion, in June 2017, when asked by Italian coast guards to rescue a migrant boat in distress, Massoud replied: “It’s a day off. It’s a holiday here. But I can try to help. Perhaps, we can be there tomorrow.”
According to data compiled by the International Organization for Migration by the end of that weekend 126 people died.
The trawler captain, Giuseppe Giacalone, told the Italian news agency ANSA: “It is a miracle we are alive. We were shot at. The cabin of our boat is full of holes. It was 2pm on Thursday when it happened. While we were sailing towards the north-east, a Libyan patrol boat caught up with us and started shooting. The shots hit us and the dashboard glass shattered.”
According to aid agencies, the Libyan patrol boat Ubari is the same vessel that allegedly ignored a distress call from a migrant dinghy before the deaths of 130 asylum seekers on 22 April.
The incident with the fishing boats is likely to spark a row in Italy after the prime minister, Mario Draghi, went to Libya in early April and complimented the coastguard, saying he was “satisfied with the rescues carried out by Libya”.
Italian fishing boats have previously been attacked by Libyan authorities as far back as the mid-1990s, when Tripoli began protecting its fishing waters from foreign vessels with the use of force.
In the 180 miles of sea that separates Libya from Italy, the “War of the Gambero Rosso”, named after the prized red prawn found in those waters, has continued for decades but intensified after 2005, when Muammar Gaddafi unilaterally decided to extend Libya’s territorial waters from 12 to 74 miles offshore.
According to data from Sicily’s Distretto della Pesca, a cooperative of fishing industry stakeholders, in the past 25 years more than 60 boats have been seized or confiscated, about 40 fishers detained and dozens of people injured.
The most serious recent incident took place in September 2020, when two Sicilian fishing boats – named Antartide and Medinea – were approached by Libyan patrol boats that accused them of fishing in Libyan territorial waters and, from there, were transferred to Benghazi, a region in eastern Libya controlled by Haftar.
The 18 fishers from Sicily – eight Italians, six Tunisians, two Indonesians and two Senegalese – were held captive in Libya for more than 100 days and were eventually freed in December, ending a political standoff between the two countries over the fate of the men.