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Machine gun attack on Italian fishing boat by Libyan coast guards: what happens during patrols against "illegal" immigration?

In the evening of 12 September 2010, an Italian fishing boat with ten crew members on board was fired at repeatedly with a machine gun during a lengthy chase after it failed to stop when called upon to do so by Libyan coast guards in international waters in the Gulf of Sirte (off the Libyan coast). The Libyans were on board of one of the six patrol boats that Italy gave the north African country in application of the friendship, association and cooperation agreement signed on 30 August 2008, to help it to fight "illegal" migration towards Italy in the Mediterranean. The Italian government's embarrassment over the incident was compounded by the fact that six Italian Guardia di Finanza (GdF, the customs an excise police, which has military status) officers were on board, as envisaged by the treaty, carrying out observation and technical assistance functions.

The captain's reconstruction

Gaspare Mutolo, the captain of the Ariete, a boat that is part of the fishing fleet of Mazara del Vallo, in Sicily, claimed that they were not fishing and were told to stop by the Libyan coastguards but failed to do so because they were aware that Italian fishing boats have been held captive in the past months by Libyans seeking to enforce a unilateral expansion of their territorial waters. Three boats from Mazara del Vallo were held by the Libyans for three days before they were released following the Italian government's intervention on 10 June 2010. The Ariete has rescued immigrants who were in difficulty in the high seas in the past, for example the 54 migrants that it saved in November 2007, earning its crew a UNHCR award. Mutolo explained that:

"They asked us to stop… but, knowing what awaited us, I preferred to continue and pushed the engines to full power. At this point, they opened fire, continuing to shoot with intervals of a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes [for around three hours]. They followed us nearly into our territorial waters. It was only at dawn, when we saw Lampedusa, that we felt safe".

The bullet holes in the command cabin, "50 between the two bulkheads", are evidence that the shots were fired at human height, and crew members noted that "they fired wildly. It was just by chance that they didn't cause some gas canisters that we had on deck to explode", and that "the Libyans are reckless, because shooting at the height of the command cabin indicates a willingness to kill". Mutolo, claimed that they "had no right to stop us" as they were merely navigating through the area. He felt that, as was later confirmed, there were Italians on board because the man who asked them to stop spoke in impeccable Italian and said "Stop, or they'll shoot at you. Why would he say 'they'?" Marrone later noted that the boat could not have been mistaken for a boat used to carry migrants, because he had spoken to the Libyan captain by radio informing him that they were Italians who were working, and the Ariete is a boat that is 36-metres-long and has modern fishing equipment on board.

Responses by the government and judiciary, findings and inconsistencies

Through the foreign affairs and interior ministers, respectively Franco Frattini and Roberto Maroni, the Italian government attempted to minimise what happened, by talking of "an accident", stressing that Libya had "apologised" and adding that "nothing has changed in relations between Italy and Libya", although they recognised it was a "serious" incident and that the rules for the use of the patrol boats may have to be re-defined.

Maroni went further, by claiming that they may have mistaken the boat for a vessel that was carrying migrants, while Frattini appeared to justify the Libyans by claiming that the captain of the Italian boat "knew that he was fishing illegally", something that Gaspare Marrone denies, arguing that they were not fishing, were subjected to an attack and are lucky that nobody was injured. The basis for Frattini's claim may have been that the agriculture, fishery and forestry ministry issued a circular on 26 January 2009 in response to Libyan complaints, inviting Italian fishing boats not to venture into Libyan fishing areas. Frattini also stated that the Libyan captain "ordered to fire warning shots in the air, but the vessel was hit". Apart from the official apology, the version offered by the Libyan authorities spoke of the need for checks against "illegal fishing" and noted that they had launched an investigation and the patrol boat's captain was suspended.

The Italian ministers stressed that giving Libya patrol boats was already envisaged in agreements stipulated by the Prodi government in 2007, which were developed and enacted by the friendship treaty in 2008. However, the interior ministry stressed that the patrol boats were provided to be used exclusively "for a specific task: to counter illegal immigration", and Frattini explained that "shooting is not part of the rules of engagement, neither for fishermen nor for illegals".

The Agrigento prosecutor's office is investigating the case which may involve charges of "aggravated attempted murder" against unknown people and of "damaging a vessel" under maritime law. The investigation included controls by the carabinieri RIS (scientific investigations unit) on the bullet holes, the vessel's "blue box" [the equivalent of the "black box" used on aircraft] that includes a GPS tracking device which reportedly confirmed that Ariete was 30 miles away from the Libyan coast. It was also confirmed that six GdF officers posted to Libya to assist the Libyan authorities in joint patrols were on board, and that they were made to go below deck once the shooting started. An interior ministry inquiry found that they had acted in accordance with the Italy-Libya protocols, as they are outside of Italy and do not have any operative powers, as their function is observation and training. 22 GdF officers and one official from the force are deployed in Libya, and bilateral agreements detail that when they are on board they are in plainclothes and cannot give any orders. There is a significant difference between the account given by Marrone and the GdF report as to the duration and intensity of the incident, as the former said that both the chase and the period during which they were fired at lasted for several hours.

In an interview in Repubblica newspaper on 15 September, one of the GdF officers posted to Libya said that their role is to teach the Libyans to use the patrol boats and that "the Libyans certainly do not behave well towards us". He noted that "what happened the other day is really incredible, but unfortunately we are ordered to… board those vessels". Their role is technical and "We cannot interfere for any reason", while they are treated with arrogance by their counterparts. He expressed his frustration, "especially when … we must helplessly witness an attempt to board a ship using weapons, our weapons, against defenceless fellow nationals". He also spoke out against the refoulements of migrants, "one of the most cruel services we carry out", noting that they sometimes try to avoid carrying them out, but they are under orders and need a "plausible reason" to do so.

Vincenzo Asaro, the boat's owner, said he was "dismayed" by Frattini's allegations against the captain, adding: "Obviously our foreign affairs minister prefers to defend Khadafi rather than our boats that are machine-gunned without any reason… My vessel was not fishing and, moreover, as satellite records have also shown, it was in international waters. The Italian government must have recognised the Libyan government's claim to unilaterally extend its territorial waters up to 72 miles [from the coast]". The GPS system on the boat indicated that the boat was 30 miles away from the Libyan coast, while international maritime rules set the limit of countries' territorial waters at 12 miles, although there are longstanding Libyan claims to the entire Gulf of Sirte, and it has lawfully established a fishing protection zone that spreads out beyond its territorial waters. In reference to Maroni's claims, Asaro asked: "Is shooting at immigrants allowed? Is there a licence to kill?", an issue that Laurens Jolles, the UNHCR envoy to Italy, also tackled by stating that "I strongly hope that this does not mean that it is lawful to shoot at migrants and refugees".


For some time, Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo of Palermo University and a member of ASGI (Associazione di Studi Giuridici sull'Immigrazione) has warned of the misuse of the patrol boats that Italy gave Libya for immigration controls against fishing boats from the Mazara del Vallo fleet. In fact, while the media and political debate is treating this incident as an intolerable exception, Paleologo has been warning about the use of the patrol boats given to Libya by Italy against Sicilian fishermen for some time. When, on 10 June 2010, three Italian fishing vessels from the Mazara del Vallo fleet (the Alibut, Mariner 10 and Vincenza Giacalone) were intercepted, confiscated and led to Tripoli harbour along with their crews using the patrol boats from Italy in the area of the Gulf of Sirte that Libya unilaterally considers its own, Paleologo wrote:

"Only a few days ago, in the same area, the Maltese and Italian authorities allowed the Libyans to carry out their umpteenth 'hunt' against boats laden with migrants, and a group of Eritrean refugees, with women and children on board, that had asked Italy for asylum and to be rescued, was reached and escorted back to the port from which it left".

He noted that the Italian navy's deployment in the Channel of Sicily had retreated as of May 2009, and Libya had been granted greater control over an area that it considers its own, with fishing boats no longer enjoying protection from being held captive in international waters. The wide remit that Libya enjoys to intercept migrants in that stretch of sea, alongside the retreat of Italian navy vessels, has meant that migrants' chances of being rescued en route to Lampedusa or Malta have vanished. Moreover:

"This redeployment of Italian military vessels has exposed fishing boats operating in the Channel of Sicily to violent attacks, sometimes including the firing of rounds with machine guns, that the Libyan patrol boats have repeatedly carried out against defenceless people (Italians and immigrants alike) who were working to support their families".

He also listed a number of precedents, such as the interception and holding of the Monastir and Tulipano on 22 July 2009; of the Chiaraluna, which was held for five days on 4 March 2009; of the Valeria I and the Vito Mangiaracina, which were released upon payment of a heavy fine, or of the Luna Rossa, which was chased, rammed and had machine gun rounds fired at it while it escaped capture, in 2008.
In response to the latest incident, Paleologo recalls that both the protocol signed between the former Italian interior minister Giuliano Amato and the Libyan authorities on 29 December 2007, and the subsequent "friendship treaty" of August 2008 and further secret agreements in February 2009, envisage "joint maritime patrols" along the routes used by "illegal" migrants that may operate in international waters to "catch" migrants who have left the Libyan coast and take them back. In reference to the chase and the firing of live ammunition, he wanders "How many times the same script has been acted out against boats laden with migrants without anybody getting to know about it".


ANSA 13, 15-16.9.10; Corriere della Sera 13-15.9.10; La Nuova Sardegna, 14-16.9.10; La Stampa, 13.9.10; Libera Informazione, 17.9.10; Repubblica 13-15.9.10; "Quattro mosse per un'intesa con Gheddafi", Natalino Ronzitti, Rivista di Affari Internazionali, 27.9.10

"Italia - Libia: ancora sequestri in acque internazionali", Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, 13.6.10

"Peschereccio mitragliato. Pattugliamento congiunto e tentato omicidio?", Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, 14.9.10.

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