Libyan coastguard opens fire on Italian fishermen — from patrol boat donated by Rome

·4 min read
The Italian fishing boat Aliseo was fishing north of the Libyan coast when it was hit by shots fired by a Libyan patrol vessel, seen in the background - MarinaMilitare/DAPRESS / SplashNews.com
The Italian fishing boat Aliseo was fishing north of the Libyan coast when it was hit by shots fired by a Libyan patrol vessel, seen in the background - MarinaMilitare/DAPRESS / SplashNews.com

The Libyan coastguard has prompted uproar after it opened fire on Italian fishermen, wounding a skipper, from a patrol vessel donated by the Italian government.

Italian MPs condemned the attack on Thursday and reacted with fury to the revelation that the vessel had been donated by Rome to Libya to help intercept migrants trying to reach southern Europe from the Libyan coast.

Italy is one of several EU countries that have given the Libyans training and equipment in efforts to staunch the flow of thousands of asylum seekers and economic migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.

After the Italian fishing boat was shot at by the Libyan patrol vessel, the Italian navy ship Libeccio intervened  - MarinaMilitare/DAPRESS / SplashNews.com
After the Italian fishing boat was shot at by the Libyan patrol vessel, the Italian navy ship Libeccio intervened - MarinaMilitare/DAPRESS / SplashNews.com

The incident happened on Thursday, when the Libyan coastguard vessel fired on three fishing boats that are based in the port of Mazara del Vallo in Sicily. They were fishing about 35 nautical miles north of the Libyan port of Misurata.

The fishermen insisted they were in international waters but the Libyans claimed they had strayed into Libyan territorial waters and the Italian navy later said that the fishing boats were in fact inside a protected fishing zone.

The Libyans, on board a patrol boat called the Ubari 660, fired what they described as warning shots, but one round hit Giuseppe Giacalone, a boat captain, and another shattered the window of his cabin, with glass shards hitting him in the face.

“It's a miracle we survived, the cabin is full of holes," Mr Giacalone told Italy’s national news agency, Ansa, as he headed back to port in Sicily.

A file photo of Giuseppe Giacalone, the Italian boat captain who was wounded when a Libyan coast guard patrol boat fired 'warning shots' at his vessel - MAX FIRRERI/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
A file photo of Giuseppe Giacalone, the Italian boat captain who was wounded when a Libyan coast guard patrol boat fired 'warning shots' at his vessel - MAX FIRRERI/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“We were heading north-east when the Libyan patrol boat approached us and started to shoot. Some rounds hit the boat and the windows on the bridge were shattered.”

Video footage showed the fishermen pointing at several bullet holes in the hull of the boat.

“Today we have confirmation - the vessel that opened fire on the Sicilian fishermen was a patrol boat donated by Italy,” said Erasmo Palazzotto, an MP from the Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal) party said.

“It is the Ubari 660, which was donated to the Libyans in 2018. We're faced with a paradox - Italian ships and Italian arms are being used against Italians.”

He said the incident was confirmation that the “shameful” accord drawn up by Italy to try to combat illegal migration several years ago had resulted in it lending support to “the militias made up of mercenaries and people smugglers that control the so-called Libyan Coast Guard.”

Alessandro Giacalone, the son of the injured skipper, said: “Italy is helping Libya in every way possible and what do we get in return? Bursts of machine gun fire against fishing boats that were in international waters.”

His brother was one of 18 Italian fishermen who were seized by Libyan patrol boats last September and held for 108 days, accused of fishing in Libyan waters.

“The Italian government is doing nothing to protect us, to defend us,” he said. “We don’t want to risk our lives when we go to work.”

Roberto Saviano, a prominent journalist and commentator known for his books on the mafia, said the Italian patrol boats were donated to Libya when Matteo Salvini, the anti-immigrant head of The League, was interior minister and deputy prime minister.

“Salvini armed and financed people who have no scruples in torturing migrants and attacking Italian fishing boats,” he wrote on Facebook.

Tensions between Italy and Libya over fishing rights date back years, to the time of Muammar Gadaffi.

In 2005, the dictator unilaterally extended his country’s territorial waters to 74 nautical miles offshore from 12.

Libya is now run by a new government of national unity that took office in March after a UN-brokered peace accord was forged between the two competing factions that had ruled the western and eastern parts of the country. The country had descended into chaos and violence after Gadaffi was overthrown in 2011.

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