Malta, 27 April:
The Maltese government has intervened to seek the release of a Malta-chartered ship which has been held in Tripoli’s . . .[restrict]harbour for the past 10 days, ostensibly by authorities acting on reports by Libyan business giants Husni Bey Group, who claimed the ship was carrying smuggled goods.
In an urgent communication last night, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi urged the Libyan government to release the M/V Azzurra “without any conditions” after Tripoli port authorities said the ship could leave the harbour on condition it does not return.
MaltaToday is in possession of correspondence sent in March by the brother of prominent millionaire Libyan businessman Husni Bey to Libya’s interim president Mustafa Abdul Jalil and Prime Minister Abdurrahim Al-Kib, in which he denounces the M/V Azzurra as a trading ship “used to transport smuggled goods”.
Bey alleges in the letter that cars with Maltese licence plates vehicles leave the ship and enter Libya “without compliance” avoiding taxes and duties, and “freely distribute their goods to traders and markets”.
“Those who profit are Maltese traders and smugglers who have even opened markets and shops in Libya. These goods include some that have almost reached their expiry date, they even involve alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, and some of them might not even be suitable for human consumption and could cause serious harm to the consumer. The history of Malta has seen operations of reprinting best-by dates and committing fraud in this respect.”
The letter was copied to the Libyan Chamber of Commerce, the Ports Authority, Police and tax departments, calling on them to “stop any goods from being loaded or unloaded” from the Azzurra, and that the “shipping line be placed under surveillance and call it to account as it has permitted these goods to be brought onto the ship”.
Contacted at his offices in Italy, HB Group chairman Husni Bey – whose interests in Malta include the Metropolis development in Gzira – told Malta Today that Maltese and Libyan “small-time businessmen” had allegedly created a “commercial mafia”.
The M/V Azzurra’s Maltese and Turkish crew were prohibited from leaving the vessel. Sources close to the crew claimed conditions on board the ship were said to be “desperate”, as they struggled to get water and food supplies on board to the crewmen over the past days.
The Moldovan-flagged ferry M/V Azzurra is chartered by Maltese company Zammit Group and Turkish company Fergun Shipping, and has been in service since last November, ferrying passengers and goods to Tripoli twice a week.
But ten days ago, the ship was greeted by armed police officers as it moored in Tripoli and prepared to unload its cargo from Malta.
While the cargo and passengers were allowed to disembark, port authorities denied the same to the crew who were told that they were under investigation for contraband.
The correspondence seen by Malta Today confirms claims by a Libyan government official who told this newspaper the Azzurra had been “under observation” for some time: “Every time this ship docks, we have ‘thuwar’ (thugs) with guns coming to offload it… there were several reports complaining about this boat, and we are now making an official transfer of this boat to stop at Misurata or cancelling its license to Libya.”
But while this source claims the cargo aboard the Azzurra was suspected to be “so sensitive” because of militia groups seen unloading it, the Maltese shipping agent – who has requested anonymity – has insisted with MaltaToday that no contraband was ever found on board the Azzurra.
“All the cargo was let off, and it is ridiculous to hold the ship responsible if somebody imports contraband,” the agent said.
When the ship was released, the director-general of Tripoli port told Captain Hassan Salim Jouili in a letter that the Azzurra could “on condition that it does not return to the port of Tripoli in any form at all and that the Captain and owner of the ship are informed of this.”
‘Trade war’ claims
One Maltese businessman however, claims the arrest of the Azzurra is the beginning of “an all-out trade war” between Malta and Libya.
Maltese and Libyan businessmen have been using the ferry to transport an estimated €3 million worth of goods every week, which filled most stores around the capital, while trucks and vehicles supplied and stocked warehouses around the Libyan capital.
The Husni Bey group is Libya’s largest import-export enterprise and represents most of the major global companies in food, general products, medicines and services.
The same Maltese businessman who spoke to MaltaToday claimed Husni Bey’s influence on the Libyan authorities threatens to push other operators out of business. “The Maltese government appears impotent to protect our commercial interests, and the livelihoods of many Maltese whose jobs depend on the exports to Libya, in the wake of the current economic climate in Europe.”
Malta Today [/restrict]