Libyan military officials on Sunday boarded an Italian tugboat docked at Tripoli's port and threatened to suspend its communications in an apparent seizure, ship owner said, as U.S. and European airstrikes enforced a no-fly zone over Libya.
Italian officials warned they would do whatever was necessary to free the crew of the "Asso 22," which includes eight Italians, two Indians and Ukrainian. The tug was involved in servicing oil platforms off the Tripoli coast.
The ship owner, Naples-based Augusta Offshore SrL, said Tripoli port officials had boarded the vessel Friday and Saturday, asking to see and photograph its equipment, with some spending the night on board.
On Sunday morning, armed Libyan military officers boarded and threatened to suspend communications between the ship and Augusta Offshore officials, the company said in a statement, according to the LaPress news agency.
The tug left the port later Sunday, heading northwest, the company said, adding that the crew was fine. Italy's foreign minister said it appeared to be heading to an oil platform, presumably with Libyan officials still on board.
Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa told state-run RAI television 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.
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.
Late Sunday, three Tornados took off from Italy's military airport at Trapani, Sicily, though their destination wasn't immediately known, state-run RAI television reported.
Meanwhile, the Italian aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi, which has eight aircraft aboard, has been active in air and maritime surveillance missions for several days now, navy commander Adm. Luigi Binelli Mantelli told Sky Tg24.
In addition, Italy's Andrea Doria ship is equipped with anti-aircraft 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 Muammar al-Qaddafi'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, Qaddafi 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 Russa said that according to Italian military estimates, Libyan missiles could strike no farther than 186 miles. Lampedusa lies about 355 kilometers 220 miles from Tripoli.
Separately Sunday, Italy reported to the United Nations that it had frozen nearly euro7 billion in Libyan assets.