VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis expressed support on Sunday for 18 fishermen held in Libya, weighing in on a standoff between Italy and the administration of Khalifa Haftar, one of the North African country’s two rival leaders.
“I want to say a word of encouragement and support for the fishermen who have been held in Libya for more than a month, and for their families (who) are hoping to be able to embrace their dear ones soon,” Francis said at his weekly blessing in St. Peter’s Square.
Libyan patrol boats detained two Sicilian fishing boats on Sept. 1 for allegedly fishing in territorial waters and brought the crews to Benghazi in Libya. The crews, made up of Italians and Tunisians, were accused of operating in Libya’s territorial waters.
The fishing grounds have been disputed since 2005, when Libya’s then ruler, Muammar Qaddafi, unilaterally extended Libyan territorial waters to 74 nautical miles offshore from 12. Haftar, who controls eastern Libya, is trying to enforce this.
Italian newspapers have reported that Gen. Haftar wants Italy to hand over four Libyan nationals convicted of human trafficking in return for freeing the fishermen. Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told parliament on Thursday that such an exchange would be “unacceptable.”
The Italian minister pledged to bring home the fishermen.
“Our fishermen are being held by a Libyan party not recognised by the Italian government, the European Union or the United Nations,” Di Maio told the Senate during question time. “It is our aim to bring them home as soon as possible,” he said.
Concern has mounted in Italy over the fate of the men – eight Italians, six Tunisians, two Indonesians and two Senegalese.
Di Maio said the men appeared to have been detained over the alleged violation of a “protected fishing zone,” an area of sea extending 74 miles from the coast and unilaterally claimed by Libya in 2005 as its own.
Benghazi authorities passed the case to the military prosecutor’s office on Sept. 31 because the incident took place in what is considered a military zone, Italy’s parliamentary relations minister Federico D’Inca said last week.
The area is also a fishing ground for the gambero rosso, or red prawn, a crustacean prized by gourmet chefs and which can sell for up to €60 a kilo at the fishmongers.
Families from Mazara del Vallo, on the west coast of Sicily, have been fishing the prawns since the 1900s.
“The area has been the site of numerous incidents (over the years), from the interception and seizure of fishing boats to the detention of crews, and even attacks” by Libyan vessels, Di Maio said. The Italian media has dubbed it “the prawn war.”
Di Maio said he had called on those “who have particular influence on Benghazi” for help, including his counterparts in France, the US, the UAE and Russia. “We are monitoring the fishermen’s health daily. They are well. They are not being held in a prison but an independent structure, they have no contact with prisoners, they are being treated well,” he said.
But the fishermen’s families believe the men are being held as a bargaining tool and will only be released in exchange for four Libyan footballers.
The Libyans were arrested in Sicily in 2015 and sentenced to 30 years in jail for people trafficking, after a court found them guilty of locking migrants below deck on a rough sea crossing to Italy in which 49 people died.
Their lawyers claim they were asylum seekers fleeing the conflict-torn North African country.
D’Inca told parliament that “the reported request to swap the fishermen with four Libyan citizens jailed in Italy has neither been confirmed not formally made.”
Francis also called for talks to bring peace to Libya, which is divided between Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).