By NICOLE WINFIELD
ROME – Italian officials said Sunday they would do whatever it takes to free the crew of an Italian tugboat apparently seized by Libyan officials at Tripoli’s port as U.S. and European airstrikes enforced a no-fly zone over Libya.
The “Asso 22” tug of the Naples-based shipping company Augusta Offshore SrL has eight Italian, two Indian and one Ukrainian crew members aboard. Armed men, including one believed to be the Tripoli port commander, detained the crew as Libyan workers aboard disembarked Saturday, state-run RAI television reported.
On Sunday, the tug was heading out of port to an oil platform, presumably with Libyan officials still on board, the foreign minister said.
Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said Sunday that Italy was prepared to evacuate the crew “with every possible means.”
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the situation was fluid and confusing, but that he couldn’t exclude that it amounted to a seizure. He said Eni, Italy’s oil and gas giant which has significant interests in Libya, had rented the tug for use at oil platforms off the coast.
“Now they’re taking it to the base of an Eni refinery,” Frattini said. “We don’t know what their intentions are, but we obviously can’t exclude that we’re dealing with a seizure, given that it’s still a confused situation.”
He said Italy had asked Turkey, which is now representing Italian interests in Libya following the closure of Italy’s embassy, to intervene with Libyan authorities.
Calls to Augusta Offshore went unanswered Sunday.
Italy, Libya’s former colonial ruler, has allowed seven military bases to be used by allied forces enforcing the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone over Libya and on Sunday offered up eight aircraft to the coalition: four anti-radar Tornados and four fighter jets that could be deployed at any time.
The aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi, where the eight aircraft are based, has been active in air and maritime surveillance missions for several days now, navy commander Adm. Luigi Binelli Mantelli told Sky Tg24.
“We have an active role, because we are integrated into this air campaign and we’re not just bringing in humanitarian aid,” he said. Italian ships have been delivering medicine and other aid to Benghazi for several weeks now and would continue to, he said.
In addition, Italy’s Andrea Doria ship is equipped with air defense equipment to protect Italian territory from possible Libyan retaliation, Mantelli said.
As U.S., French and British cruise missile and air strikes began Saturday, Premier Silvio Berlusconi assured Italians that Moammar Gadhafi’s regime didn’t have the capacity to strike Italian territory. Nevertheless, the mayor of the tiny island of Lampedusa, which is closer to the African continent than the Italian mainland, said Sunday he was worried about possible retaliation.
In 1986, Gadhafi fired a missile at Lampedusa, which at the time housed a U.S. Coast Guard installation, after the U.S. bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in retaliation for what Washington said was Libya’s support for terrorism. The missile fell harmlessly in the sea.
La Russia told state-run RAI television that, according to Italian military estimates, Libyan missiles could strike no farther than 300 kilometers (186 miles). Lampedusa lies about 355 kilometers (220 miles) from Tripoli.
Lampedusa has been the scene of a massive influx if migrants, mostly from Tunisia, in the weeks following popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. On Sunday alone, more than 300 people arrived on two separate boats.
Italy has demanded Europe as a whole help deal with the influx, arguing that Italy alone cannot be expected to cope. La Russa repeated that again Sunday, saying Italy had come forward offering base support and now aircraft to enforce the no-fly zone, and now expected the EU help Italy out on the immigration end.
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.