The strange cases of Turkish ships off North Africa

The ship was found to have "violated the customs laws of Tunisia and international maritime law."
March 04, 2018
Members of Tunisia’s National Guard patrol in a boat off the coast of Sousse. (Reuters)
On high alert. Members of Tunisia’s National Guard patrol the coast of Sousse. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisian authorities impounded a Turkish-operated ship transporting military vehicles, uniforms, transmission equipment and other supplies that would furnish a “camp of irregular military forces,” a spokesman for Tunisian Customs said.

The vessel, belonging to Turkish company Akdeniz RoRo Limited, was seized February 14 off the Tunisian coast. It was among a series of Turkish ships transporting weapons in the southern Mediterranean in recent years.

A ship described as a “moving bomb” was intercepted by the Greek Coast Guard in January. It was reportedly en route to conflict-torn Libya with 29 containers of explosives onboard. In 2015, Greek authorities intercepted a Turkish ship off Crete on the way to Libya with 500,000 bullets hidden under support equipment.

In a statement on the recent seizure in Tunisia, Commander Haythem Zanned, spokesman of Tunisia’s customs service, said: “The ship is being impounded because there are suspicions of a link to terrorism. The ship violated the customs laws of Tunisia and international maritime law.”

Zanned said “after a thorough inspection” it was confirmed that the ship, berthed at Sfax on February 14, was not carrying weapons. However, he said: “We found 66 military trucks of various types, 300 transmitter devices and two satellite transmission units, armoured vehicles, including two cars of the type usually used by military commanders.”

Zanned said Tunisian Army experts who inspected the cargo reported that “the equipment and items were suitable for a camp of irregular military forces.”

Tunisian Customs referred the case to the criminal court in Sfax, south of Tunis, for suspicions of a terrorist connection and violations of the Tunisian Customs law and maritime rules. The ship’s operators allegedly failed to fully disclose the military nature of the cargo in its mandatory listing of the goods it was transporting.

Tunisian authorities were suspicious of the vessel even before customs officers boarded it for inspection after its captain asked for authorisation to berth at Sfax for repairs after an unspecified breakdown after crossing Libyan waters.

The Russian Embassy in Tunis said in a statement that the ship had sailed from the southern Russian port of Novorossiysk destined for Douala, Cameroon.

The Turkish-operated and Panamanian-flagged ship was in Turkish territorial waters for several days before reaching the Mediterranean, where it spent days near the Italian coast before returning to Libyan territorial waters between Benghazi and Tripoli.

“If Douala was its true destination, the ship would have crossed the Gibraltar Strait instead of staying in Libyan waters,” Zanned said.

Tunisian authorities are constantly looking for jihadist threats from Tunisia’s land and sea borders with Libya. Libyan officials in Benghazi and Tobruk have repeatedly accused Turkey of supplying Islamist militias with weapons.

Abdullah al-Thani, prime minister of the Tobruk-based government in eastern Libya, alleged that Turkey sent weapons to Islamist militias allied with the Muslim Brotherhood to help them take control of Tripoli in 2014 after they were defeated in elections by secularist and nationalist factions.

“Turkey was not being honest with us,” Thani said in a recent interview. “It exports weapons to the Libyans to kill each other.”

Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the self-styled anti-Islamist strongman in eastern Libya, accused Turkey and Qatar, another supporter of Islamists in the Arab region, of providing weapons to Islamists in Libya, including powerful militias of Misrata.

In August 2014, Haftar ordered his forces to shell a ship transporting weapons from Turkey and heading to the Libyan port of Derna, a stronghold of Libyan jihadists allied with al-Qaeda.

Libya plunged into chaos after NATO-backed, Islamist-dominated rebels toppled and killed dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

Libya’s neighbours Algeria and Tunisia — as well as most Libyans — charge that regional interference and meddling by foreign powers in Libya hinder efforts by the United Nations and others to broker a political solution to Libya’s civil war.

The United Nations imposed an arms embargo on Libya in 2011 to quell violence in the North African country.