Libya’s coastguard on Sunday warned against “illegal” fishing in its waters, denying Italian claims it had wounded a fisherman as it fired shots during an operation against four boats from Sicily.
Citing “repeated, documented violations”, the coastguard said that on Thursday morning it had “received reports that four Italian fishing vessels were heading from southern Italy” into Libyan waters.
The coastguard dispatched a patrol to intercept and inspect the boats to ensure they were not carrying out “suspicious activities” or smuggling, it said.
But instead of cooperating, the boats fled, it added, sparking a three-hour chase in which “warning shots were fired in the air.”
It said one of the boats was finally caught and inspected, and that a crew member had been injured when he hit the window of the boat.
“This is not the first time Italian fishing vessels have carried out such actions and violations,” the coastguard said, warning that fishing in Libyan waters without authorization was illegal.
“Libya’s preservation of the sovereignty of its waters is a legitimate right,” it added.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio condemned the coastguard’s actions but also warned captains against crossing into “dangerous” Libyan waters.
“We have been advising against going there not just for months but for 10 years,” he said.
Salvatore Quinci, the mayor of the Sicilian fishing port of Mazara del Vallo, had said the cabin of the boat was “riddled with bullets” and the captain had suffered a wound to his arm and a head cut from a shard of glass.
Italian fishing boats, particularly from Sicily, have defied repeated warnings and ventured close to Libyan shores, where they have traditionally fished for pink shrimp.
In September, 18 Sicily-based fishing crew members of various nationalities were captured off Benghazi by the forces of general Khalifa Haftar for fishing in Libyan waters. They were freed in December.
Tensions over fishing rights between Sicily and its North African neighbor were fanned in 2005, when Libya’s then-leader Muammar Gaddafi proclaimed the country’s protected fishing zone extended 74 nautical miles out from the coast, in defiance of international standards.
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