Italian navy frees crew of captured fishing boat off Libyan coast

Story highlights

  • Italian Navy retakes fishing boat seized by smugglers
  • Boat was being steered towards Libyan port of Misrata
  • Italian navy says shots were fired accidentally, one fisherman injured

Rome (CNN)The Italian navy has boarded and retaken control of a fishing boat that had been seized hours earlier by gunmen off the coast of Sicily, the Italian military said Friday.

The boat, named Airone, was intercepted some 90 kilometers (56 miles) from the Libyan port of Misrata, according to a statement from the Italian Joint Forces.
    An Italian naval unit boarded the fishing boat and took custody of a Libyan soldier on the vessel, according to a statement by the Italian Navy. It said during the operation, rifle shots were accidentally fired, and one of the seven fisherman on board was slightly injured.
    The Airone, carrying three Sicilians and four Tunisians, had embarked from Mazara del Vallo in Sicily five days earlier to fish for shrimp.
    The Airone's captain said there were about 10 other ships in the area when it was seized, according to Vito Mazzarino, the boat's owner.
    "At a certain point a tug boat came up and flanked the fish boat and some Libyans came on board," Mazzarino said, quoting the captain, Alberto Figuccia.
    "They were armed. And at that point chaos erupted."
    Italy is a major gateway to Europe for migrants from North Africa. Thousands of people each year make the dangerous sea journey from North Africa to Europe's Mediterranean coast, to flee war and poverty. Italy registered more than 10,000 migrants in the first three months of 2015, according to the International Organization for migration.
    On Monday, gunmen on a speedboat fired shots in the air and sped away with a wooden boat that was being used to transport migrants, according to Frontex, the European Union's border management agency. That incident occurred 60 nautical miles from the Libyan coast. The 250 migrants on board had already been transferred on to a different boat, Frontex said on its website.
    "This is a sign that smugglers in Libya are running short of boats and are more willing to use weapons to recover those used to transport the migrants," said Fabrice Leggeri, Frontex's executive director, in a news release.