MILAN (AP) — The Italian navy said Friday it freed a Sicilian fishing boat that had been seized earlier in the day by armed men off the coast of Libya, in what was thought to be a dispute about fishing rights.
The operation was conducted by military personnel operating in the area on migrant rescue duty. The statement did not say whether the Italian military encountered the armed men, but a Sicilian commercial fishing cooperative said the seven crew members were on their way back to port and appeared to be unharmed.
"The situation remains very serious and the level of alert for our fishermen is very high," said Giovanni Tumbiolo, president of the COSVAP consortium, which is based in the Sicilian port of Mazara del Vallo and includes 350 fishing vessels. He said it appeared to be an act of piracy related to a continuing dispute with Libya over fishing rights, and not related to smuggling of migrants from Libya to Europe.
"Our fishermen were operating legitimately in international waters," said Tumbiolo. "We don't understand why we have to endure this fishing war that has been going on for the last eight to 10 years."
The navy said the fishing boat had been seized by armed men, apparently Libyan security forces, traveling on a tug boat around 90 kilometers (50 nautical miles) northwest of the Libyan port of Misrata.
The cooperative said other fishing boats operating in the vicinity had reported the seizure to port authorities. The crew of three Italians and four Tunisians resident in Italy had been in the area fishing for shrimp.
It was not clear if shots were fired, and there were no reports of injuries, said Francesco Mezzapelle, spokesman for the fishing consortium.
The port of Mazara del Vallo is Italy's most important fishing port, and one of the most productive in the world, bringing in 30,000 tons of fish a year, according to consortium figures.
The consortium said there have been a dozen seizures of Italian fishing vessels since 2005 when Libya asserted that its territorial waters extended 74 miles off shore — well beyond international agreements. One Italian boat seized in 2012 remains held in the Libyan city of Benghazi, although the crew members were released after a month, Mezzapelle said.
The deteriorating security situation in Libya has only escalated concerns for the Sicilian fishing fleet that operates in the area.
Fighting in Libya has escalated to its worst levels since the 2011 civil war that ended with the overthrow and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Rebel groups that fought against him kept their weapons and militias mushroomed in number.
The country now has rival governments — the internationally recognized one in the eastern city of Tobruk, and an Islamist-backed one in the capital, Tripoli. The two sides have been negotiating in Morocco to end the fighting.
Brian Rohan in Cairo contributed to this report.