Americans had asked Debono on secret refuelling of Russian ship

Suspected fuel smuggler Darren Debono was asked by a US naval attaché if he knew whether the Maltese government was involved in the secret refuelling of a Russian ship

Darren Debono
Darren Debono

A naval attaché of the United States embassy in Malta had questioned Darren Debono about the allegedly secret refuelling of a Russian ship by the Maltese government.

The former Malta international footballer was this week arrested and arraigned in a massive anti-money laundering operation by Maltese police which earned the plaudits of the American government in a formal statement.

Debono had long been on a hit-list of suspected smugglers which the American government’s embassy officials in Malta wanted arrested, actively encouraging the Maltese government to take action.

But in 2019, Debono filed an affidavit in the Maltese law courts in which he claimed that a naval attaché at the embassy of the United States requested information about a possibly secret refuelling of a Russian warship, after the Maltese government claimed it had refused permission for its docking in Malta.

In the affidavit, Debono said the attaché requested to know what he knew about “when the Russians asked the Maltese government for fuel for warships on their way to Syria, and whether the Maltese government had mounted a mise-en-scene when it refused to do so; and whether it was the case that the Maltese government had supplied the fuel requested outside Maltese territorial waters.”

The US embassy has declined to comment on the claim, when asked by this newspaper about the allegation made by Debono. In his affidavit, Debono also submitted print-outs of a list he was given, of ships suspected of being involved in fuel smuggling in and around Malta, and the hand-written names of the two Russian ships – the Kuznetsov and the Severmorsk – with the years 2016 and 2019 respectively next to them, notes allegedly taken during the meeting.

In 2016, Malta withdrew permission for a Russian navy replenishment tanker to refuel at its port after UK and American diplomats applied pressure to the Maltese government to deny access to the tanker, as they believed the fuel would be used to replenish the Admiral Kuznetsov battlegroup. The carrier and seven accompanying vessels were believed to be headed to Syria to support the siege of Aleppo. Diplomats were concerned that the Kuznetsov's air wing will be deployed in a bombing campaign over Aleppo – a campaign which has inflicted a significant number of civilian casualties.

Then in April 2019, the Russian embassy sought permission for a visit by the warship Severomorsk, a large anti-submarine guided-missile destroyer, to dock at Grand Harbour, but later withdrew the request. During the same period, the government also denied a request by Russia for two military aircraft to fly over Maltese airspace en route to Venezuela, a move that was described as “unfriendly” by the Russian government at the time.

Debono has already claimed in court that he also refused to collaborate as to whether the refuelling had taken place with the knowledge of Keith Schembri, the former chief of staff at the OPM, and the former prime minister himself Joseph Muscat.

According to Debono’s original affidavit, who detailed the meeting in a bid to have American sanctions on his ships and other assets lifted by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, he was asked to offer up information on drug and fuel smuggling networks in the Mediterranean.

Together with Gordon Debono, who this week was also arrested and charged with money laundering, Debono was already facing charges in a Catania court over their alleged involvement in a €30 million Libyan oil smuggling ring. The Italians’ two-year investigation, dubbed Operation Dirty Oil, followed the movements of Debono’s ships as well as intercepted telephonic conversations, revealing the central part Debono played in the smuggling ring.

In a list of questions he was provided by the US embassy official, Debono was also asked to reveal influential drug trafficking syndicates – specifically the drug Tramadol – who they sell their cargo to, and how they paid their crews to transport drugs and other illicit cargo. The Americans also named shipper Paul Attard, of the Patron Group, and Libyan national Faysal al-Wadi – the latter was this year slapped with OFAC sanctions over illicit trafficking operations concerning drugs transported between the Libyan port of Zuwarah and the maritime location known as Hurd’s Bank, just outside of Malta’s territorial waters.

As it happens, in the summer of 2019, an attempt by the Maltese government to have United Nations sanctions issued against the Debonos, was inexplicably prevented by Russia, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Russia blocked the Maltese attempt for a Security Council designation when it ‘broke the silence’ at the eleventh hour, putting a hold on the designations of the Maltese nationals.