Ship captain's arrest lifts curtain on Turkish arms smuggling to Libya

10 Turkish agents, including military officials travelled aboard the cargo ship from Mersin.
Thursday 20/02/2020
The Bana cargo ship. (Vessel Finder)
The Bana cargo ship. (Vessel Finder)

ROME - The captain of a Lebanese-flagged cargo ship was arrested Wednesday in northern Italy for investigation of suspected arms trafficking between Turkey and Libya, an Italian prosecutor said.

The captain of the cargo ship berthed in the port city of Genoa is under investigation for allegedly delivering rockets, tanks and other military equipment to Libya in violation of a United Nations arms embargo, prosecutor Francesco Pinto told The Associated Press.

Pinto says the Lebanese captain is suspected of carrying out the trafficking with as yet unidentified Turkish military officials.

Italian authorities launched their investigation based on allegations made by a Lebanese sailor who was a crew member on the 40-year-old cargo ship, the Bana, the prosecutor told the AP earlier in the week.

After the ship arrived in Genoa this month, the sailor told Italian border police he was seeking political asylum. He alleged that tanks and other vehicles that could be used for military purposes were loaded onto the Bana at a Turkish port and then transported to Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

Bana then sailed without cargo to Genoa, where the ship docked on Feb. 2. The cargo ship's hold is designed to carry vehicles.

According to a report in Genoa daily newspaper Il Secolo XIX, the sailor said that some 10 Turkish agents, including military officials, also travelled aboard the cargo ship from Mersin, Turkey, to Tripoli, staying in the hold near armoured vehicles.

Pinto told AP the sailor provided photographs showing vehicles in the ship's hold, has asked Italy for political asylum and that his case is being considered.

“He contends he discovered this trafficking” of arms, the prosecutor said.

The alleged actions would be in violation of the UN embargo aimed at helping to end nine years of fighting between rival Libyan factions for control of the energy-rich northern African nation.

Its not just the sailor's allegations that have fueled suspicions.

Earlier in the week, a French military official, speaking anonymously due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier on January 29 spotted a Turkish frigate off the Libyan coast escorting the Bana, which made a stop in Tripoli's port.

French fighter jets from the aircraft carrier spotted a delivery while on a reconnaissance mission, French newspaper Le Monde reported.

The Charles de Gaulle was in the area as part of a USs-led operation against Islamic State group.

Pinto told the AP the Bana's transponders were turned off after it left the Turkish port and crossed the water to Libya. Investigators in Italy hope that analysing equipment on the cargo ship, including the cellphones of crew members, could help verify the Bana's route.

The cargo ship's Lebanese owner, Merhi Abou Merhi, denied media reports in recent weeks that the Bana was used to transport armoured vehicles to Libya. He said the vessel usually takes cars between Lebanon and Libya.

(Associated Press)