MILAN – The Italian navy said Friday it boarded and took control of a Sicilian fishing boat that had been seized earlier in the day by armed men off the coast of Libya.
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 the Sicilian cooperative said the seven crew members were on their way back to port.
The navy said the fishing boat had been seized by armed men, apparently Libyan security forces, traveling on a tug boat around 50 nautical miles northwest of the Libyan port of Misrata.
The fishing cooperative said that other fishing boats operating in the vicinity had reported the seizure to port authorities. The crew, which had been fishing for shrimp, included three Italians and four Tunisians resident in Italy.
It was not clear if shots were fired, and there were no reports of injuries, said Francesco Mezzapelle, spokesman for the fishing consortium.
The consortium said there have been a dozen such seizures of Italian fishing vessels since 2005 when Libya asserted that its territorial waters extended more than 70 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 had heightened concern for the fishermen's safety, he said. "We are very worried, and so are their families," Mezzapelle said before the rescue operation.
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.