MILAN // The Italian navy said on Friday it boarded and took control of a Sicilian fishing boat that had been seized earlier in the day by armed men off the coast of Libya.
The operation was conducted by military personnel operating in the area on migrant rescue duty. The statement did not say whether the Italian military encountered the armed men, but a Sicilian commercial fishing cooperative said the seven crew members were on their way back to port and appeared to be unharmed.
The incident came as Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi was expected to meet United States president Barack Obama on Friday.
Mr Obama is hosting Mr Renzi at the White House to compare notes on a range of issues, including Ukraine, Libya and ISIL militants.
The Italian navy said the fishing boat had been seized by armed men, apparently Libyan security forces, travelling on a tug boat around 90 kilometres north-west of the Libyan port of Misurata.
“The situation remains very serious and the level of alert for our fishermen is very high,” said Giovanni Tumbiolo, president of the COSVAP cooperative, which is based in the Sicilian port of Mazara del Vallo and includes 350 fishing vessels. He said it appeared to be an act of piracy related to a continuing dispute with Libya over fishing rights, and not related to smuggling of migrants from Libya to Europe.
“Our fishermen were operating legitimately in international waters,” said Mr Tumbiolo. “We don’t understand why we have to endure this fishing war that has been going on for the last eight to 10 years.”
The port of Mazara del Vallo is Italy’s most important fishing port, and one of the most productive in the world, bringing in 30,000 tons of fish a year.
The fishing cooperative said that other fishing boats operating in the vicinity had reported the seizure to port authorities. The crew, which had been fishing for shrimp, included three Italians and four Tunisians resident in Italy.
It was not clear if shots were fired, and there were no reports of injuries, said Francesco Mezzapelle, spokesman for the fishing consortium.
The consortium said there have been a dozen such seizures of Italian fishing vessels since 2005 when Libya asserted that its territorial waters extended more than 112 kilometres off shore — well beyond international agreements. One Italian boat seized in 2012 remains held in the Libyan city of Benghazi, although the crew members were released after a month, Mr Mezzapelle said.
The deteriorating security situation in Libya had heightened concern for the fishermen’s safety, he said. “We are very worried, and so are their families,” Mezzapelle said before the rescue operation.
Fighting in Libya has escalated to its worst levels since the 2011 civil war that ended with the overthrow and killing of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Rebel groups that fought against him kept their weapons and militias mushroomed in number.
The country now has rival governments — the internationally recognised one in the eastern city of Tobruk, and an extremist-backed one in the capital, Tripoli. The two sides have been negotiating in Morocco to end the fighting.
In Washington, along with Middle East threats, Mr Obama and Mr Renzi are expected to discuss Europe’s economy, a pending trade pact between the US and Europe, climate change and energy security.
With Italy mired in a recession, Mr Renzi also comes seeking Mr Obama’s support for his economic programme, though it has yet to significantly improve the country’s fiscal outlook.
Italy also is struggling to manage the unprecedented number of migrants who aren’t hesitating to make the treacherous boat trip across the Mediterranean to flee instability in Libya and other parts of North Africa and the Middle East.
Police in Sicily reported on Thursday that Muslim migrants had thrown 12 Christians overboard during a recent crossing from Libya, and an aid group said another 41 were believed to have drowned in a separate incident. Those tragedies followed earlier reports of 400 people presumed dead in the sinking of a ship near the Libyan coast.
The deaths have spurred calls for a more robust search and rescue of the waters between Libya and Europe amid the surge in migration between the continents.
Mr Obama and Mr Renzi first met when the president visited Italy last year just weeks after the now 40-year-old prime minister took office.
* Associated Press