Outrage at Libyan Navy's deadly attack on Turkish ship
The Turkish government has condemned Sunday night’s attack by the Libyan Navy on the cargo ship Tuna 1, which left the vessel ablaze and her third officer dead.
The incident, which comes just days after the release of Maersk Tigris by Iran, is the latest example of state interference in the freedom of international shipping, but the death of the Turkish national has outraged Ankara, creating a diplomatic crisis.
“We strongly denounce this heinous attack toward a civilian ship in international waters and we condemn those who carried out the attack,” read a statement from Turkey’s foreign ministry, which insisted that Tuna 1 was in international waters when she was attacked.
The foreign ministry added that the attack was a clear violation of international law and is the latest example in a series of strikes and threats to disrupt the UN-led peace talks to form a unity government in Libya.
Turkey has protested to Libyan authorities, demanding an immediate end to threats against Turkish shipping in the region, while President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s government has called on the UN to hold the Libyan government accountable.
Tuna 1 is registered in the Cook Islands, but owned by a Turkish company. The general cargo vessel was sailing 13 miles off the coast of Tobruk in international waters on Sunday night when Libyan naval forces opened fire on the ship with artillery.
There were numerous media reports that the ship was then targeted by airstrikes, but these reports have not been verified by the Turkish foreign ministry or Libyan officials.
A statement from the internationally-recognised Libyan government in Tobruk, Tuna 1’s destination according to AIS information, did not acknowledge that the ship was in international waters but said she was targeted after failing to respond to a series of questions regarding her cargo.
This radio silence and the fact that the ship entered a stretch of water between Tobruk and Derna raised concerns that the ship was attempting to smuggle arms into the war-torn country, according to Naseeb Al-Abidi, a Libyan naval officer in Tobruk.
“The vessel was suspected of carrying weapons to Derna,” said Al-Abidi. “Why else would they cruise along that path and not respond to the Navy or Air Force when we contacted them.”
Libyan officials, however, have been unable to explain why they fired on the vessel before sending boats to intercept it and examine her cargo, which is the normal practise under international maritime laws.
The attack has put further pressure on Libya and Turkey’s strained diplomatic relations, which have sunk to their lowest point since the North African nation plunged into chaos following the 2011 ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The Libyan government in Tobruk is facing an insurrection from a rival group in Tripoli, which seeks to govern Libya instead and the resulting conflict has brought the country and its economy to its knees.
The United Nations is trying to broker a peace deal between the rival governments, while Tobruk is also trying to stem the flow of weapons into the country in support of Tripoli. It accuses Turkey of supplying the rival government with weapons, claims that Ankara denies.
Turkey and Libya enjoyed close economic ties during the reign of Moammar Gadhafi, with total Turkish investments in the country of around US $15-billion. Turkey has in recent years been trying to claw back some of those economic interests.
The foreign ministry’s statement said that Tuna 1 was carrying plasterboard from Spain to Libya at the time of attack.
It is unclear how much damage was done to the vessel, which updated its AIS status to ‘not under command’ following the attack, which would usually indicate that a vessel “through some exceptional circumstance is unable to manoeuvre as required and is therefore unable to keep out of the way of another vessel” according to the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).
At the time of writing she was bound for Turkey and appeared to be under her own power, according to AIS information, contradicting media reports that she was being towed to port.