TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya has opened an inquiry into an incident last week in which one of its patrol boats fired on an Italian fishing vessel, and has also suspended the boat’s captain, the foreign ministry said.
The shooting embarrassed Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose government had donated the patrol boat to Libya and who has come under pressure from the opposition for cultivating close ties with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said this week Tripoli had apologised for the September 12 shooting, but the foreign ministry statement — Libya’s first public comment on the incident — made no mention of an apology.
The statement said a special committee had begun an investigation into the “unfortunate” incident.
“The captain of the Libyan vessel has been suspended from duties and he is now under investigation,” it added. “The special committee will hear testimony from all parties concerned with the incident.”
No one on board the fishing vessel was hurt in the shooting, but the captain told Italian media that machine gun bullets had ricocheted around the boat and his crew was lucky to be alive.
Human rights groups who have long been critical of the way Italy and Libya intercept illegal migrants in the Mediterranean Sea said the incident exposed what seemed to be a Libyan shoot-on-sight policy towards migrant boats.
“The Libyans and Italians appear to agree that it was a mistake to shoot at Italian fishermen, but imply that it’s OK to shoot at migrants,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“The bullet-riddled boat shows a reckless use of potentially lethal force that would have been just as bad if it had actually targeted non-threatening migrants,” he said in a statement.
In developing a relationship with Gaddafi, Berlusconi has secured Libyan help in stemming the flow of illegal migrants towards Italy’s shores and generated lucrative contracts for Italian firms.
However, some Italian politicians — including members of Berlusconi’s ruling coalition — are uncomfortable with the closeness of the ties.
The Northern League, part of Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, has voiced concerns about the stake of about 7 percent which two Libyan state institutions hold in Unicredit, Italy’s biggest lender.
Parts of the Italian media also expressed anger when Gaddafi, on a visit to Italy in August, urged a group of Italian women to convert to Islam.
Reporting by Salah Sarrar; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Noah Barkin