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Mazara Fishermen Prisoners in Libya: Does the Italian Government Know What to Do?

With Matteo Salvini, the victims' families protest in Rome. "A blitz is necessary" says former Admiral, while Italy still does not turn to the UN.

Italy's Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio promises to bring home the fishermen held in Libya: "We are monitoring the fishermen's health daily. They are well... By obtaining the result in silence, we will demonstrate that the Italians will bring them back home... Discretion is mandatory in situations like these"

“Since September 1st 2020, 18 fishermen from the Mazara del Vallo fishing fleet have been held hostage in Libya. It all started on the night of September 1st, when some Libyan soldiers, aboard patrol boats, ordered 4 fishing boats from Mazara, Medinea, Antarctica, Nicolino and Annamadre to stop…”.

This is the introduction of the online petition, created by the Primapaginamazara editorial team, to help free the fishermen kidnapped by the militias of Haftar. Khalifa Haftar is the leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), that was never recognized by the Italian government. The petition is addressed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Luigi Di Maio, who, according to the families, does not seem willing to “flex his muscles” to free his compatriots.

Mazara del Vallo, Sicily: protest to demand the release of 18 fishermen stranded in Libya (YouTube)

The League, led by Matteo Salvini, Wednesday organized a protest in Montecitorio, to show its solidarity with the suffering families, chanting: “let’s bring them back home”. “We brought home people who were in Africa not to work, but to do other things by spending money,” Matteo Salvini said.

“I want to hug my son again” the mother of one of the prisoners said desperately. “Do something! We can’t stand it anymore”, said another family member. “I’m ashamed of being Italian” screamed another relative of one of the 18 fishermen kidnapped.

The crews that left from Mazara del Vallo and were stopped by the militias of General Khalifa Haftar have been prisoners in the Libyan port of Benghazi for over a month, and they have been accused of having trespassed into Libyan waters.

The “Gambero Rosso” (Red Shrimp) War has been taking place in the Strait of Sicily for many years now. The “gambero rosso” is a rare and hard to find crustacean, and for this reason, Italian fishing boats go into the Mediterranean waters, where a dispute has arisen over the interpretation of international law on the miles of sea that separate Libya from Italy.

Gambero Rosso (RLievi pixabay)

It is not the first time that the Libyans have detained Italian fishermen, but generally, everything was sorted out in a few weeks. This time, however, it is different. The leader of the LNA, General Haftar, refuses to release Italian prisoners until Italy will release 4 Libyans, alleged footballers, condemned by Italian justice. In 2015, they had been arrested in Sicily and sentenced to 30 years for human trafficking. They had crossed the canal with a boat loaded with migrants and later they beat them. During the crossing, an abrupt maneuver caused the ship to sink and the death of many migrants.

General Haftar is therefore determined to force an exchange of prisoners, so much so that his militias have claimed to have found drugs on board Italian fishing boats, using this statement as a pretext to increase the sentence. The 18 fishermen also face a guilty verdict.

It is a very delicate situation that puts Italy in an uncomfortable position, since it is being challenged by one of its former colonies. Minister Luigi Di Maio immediately stated that Italy “will not be blackmailed”, and even the district attorney  in charge of the investigation, Carmelo Zuccaro, said that “an exchange would be repugnant”. However, the Italian government does not yet seem to want to resort to military action to free the hostages.

January 8th: Libyan general Khalifa Haftar with the Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (Photo Palazzo Chigi)

Thus, many people and former generals, now retired, blame the Conte government. In particular, Admiral Nicola De Felice, former commander for the Navy for the Sicily region and one of the leading experts in Maritime Law, has  criticized the government harshly. He has accused Conte of not doing enough and says a military blitz in Libya is needed. “If the government really wanted to defend our sovereignty then Italians would intervene with a blitz and free our fishermen who are in the hands of the criminal Haftar. Or, at least, put military pressure on them, deploying our ships  on the coast of Cyrenaica, as the United States did when Libya decided to unilaterally extend territorial waters”.  He then added, “if we had a government worthy of the name and a capable foreign minister, we would have put pressure first on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two countries that most fund Haftar’s troops, but also on Egypt, France and Russia, in a way that would have brought the general of Cyrenaica to heel. We could also apply economic pressure or blocking exports.”

mazara

View of the port, Mazara del Vallo (Sicily)

Italy could also turn to the UN, since it has international law on its side regarding the issue of maritime borders. But the Italian government has not yet done so. Last week, La Voce di New York, during the briefing with the spokesman of the UN Secretary General, asked if Secretary Antonio Guterres had been involved in any way in order to find a solution, but the spokesman Stéphane Dujarric had replied that he did not know about any request for help from the Italian government. Wednesday, during the ordinary briefing, La Voce di New York asked the same question, but the spokesman for the UN chief replied: “I have no news, but I will check” (video, minute 19.09).

This story has been going on for too long and now General Haftar is raising the stakes, aiming to humiliate Italy, and Rome is risking making a very poor showing on the international stage.

In the meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates government is carrying out mediation with General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) to free the Italian seafarers. A Libyan source told the Nova agency that, “Emirates officials made a long phone call with one of the LNA leaders to coordinate the details of the negotiations.” The phone call would have taken place “in a positive atmosphere”, but will it be possible to reach a solution without Italy being humiliated?

Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio (esteri.it)

UPDATE – On Thursday, Italy’s Foreign Minister promised to bring home the fishermen held in Libya.

“Our fishermen are being held by a Libyan party not recognized by the Italian government, the European Union or the United Nations,” Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio told the Senate. “We are monitoring the fishermen’s health daily. They are well.”

Moreover, Di Maio declared that he had called on those “who have particular influence on Benghazi” for help, including his counterparts in France, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.

“By obtaining the result in silence, we will demonstrate that the Italians will bring them back home… Discretion is mandatory in situations like these,” the Italian Foreign Minister stated. “Right now we need rationality, caution, determination, but above all unity. If we are united as political forces, those who are working to bring the fishermen home will be stronger.”

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