[WATCH] Italians arrest ex-Malta footballer Darren Debono in Lampedusa on fuel smuggling suspicions

The former Malta player Darren Debono, wanted by Italian prosecutors on charges of facilitating a Libyan fuel smuggling operation, has been arrested on the island of Lampedusa • Other suspect Gordon Debono arrested in Catania

Darren Debono, a former Malta footballer, has been arrested on the island of Lampedusa by Italian police
Darren Debono, a former Malta footballer, has been arrested on the island of Lampedusa by Italian police

New footage has emerged showing the moment former Maltese national footballer Darren Debono, 43, was arrested on the island of Lampedusa in connection with a fuel trafficking operation involving Libya, Italy and Malta.

MaltaToday can confirm that Debono was arrested Friday morning at a hotel in Lampedusa by the Guardia di Finanza, acting on the strength of the arrest warrant issued by the Catania judicial authorities on Wednesday.

A police official told this newspaper Debono offered no resistance, and that it was yet to be established whether he had arrived on the island using a private motorboat. He was with another person, who is however not under investigation and was not arrested.

The list of suspects issued by the Catanese prosecutor
The list of suspects issued by the Catanese prosecutor

The police said Debono had been on the island for 24 hours, having spent the night there. However they are still trying to determine the reason he was there, and when he was going to leave the island.

Debono is currently under arrest in Lampedusa, and is expected to be transferred to a prison in Sicily.

The Catanese prosecutor on Wednesday issued arrest warrants for Debono, as well as a Libyan smuggling kingpin under arrest in Tripoli and a Sicilian mafia associate over an alleged €30 million trafficking operation, which the police dubbed 'Operation Dirty Oil'.

Another Maltese suspect, Gordon Debono, was also arrested by Italian police on Wednesday at Catania airport.

The other suspects include Libyan ‘smuggling king’ Fahmi Salim Musa Bin Khalifa, who was arrested in August by a Libyan militia in Tripoli – the Rada Special Deterrence Force; and Nicola Orazio Romeo, of Catania in Sicily.

Romeo, linked to the Mafia clan of Santapaola-Ercolano, was revealed by the Panama Papers of having had offshore companies linked to the same San Gwann address as ADJ Trading, a firm in which both Debono and Bin Khalifa were once shareholders.

The prosecutor said Romeo is “an integral part of the Maltese component of the organisation, whose primary function is organising the fuel transport by sea”.

The operation was said to have carried out over 30 trips to transport over 80 million kilogrammes of gasoil, for the value of some €30 million.

An original investigation by Ann Marlowe for the Asia Times had revealed that the Maltese company ADJ Trading was used to run a network of fishing trawlers used for fuel smuggling, a fact later confirmed in a report by United Nations experts in 2016.

The company is now in dissolution. A lawyer for Darren Debono had told MaltaToday his client terminated all trading commercial relationships with Bin Khalifa and put the company into dissolution. His lawyer added that in a new UN experts’ report released this year, “no mention is made to any vessel or person directly or indirectly connected to ADJ Trading Limited and/or Mr Darren Debono.”

The original UN report linked Bin Khalifa to two vessels involved in the fuel smuggling operation: Basbosa Star and Amazigh F, which changed her name in December 2015 to Sea Master X. Both vessels were tracked close to the Libyan shore on multiple occasions in 2015. In 10 instances both vessels were detected alongside each other on the limits of Maltese territorial waters. The report said marine traffic data showed the vessel Bonu 5 – once owned by Debono’s company Andrea Martina –  approached the Amazigh F and Basbosa Star on September 24, 2015. The three vessels were side-by-side.

Other arrests

The other arrest warrants were issued for Marco Porta, the company administrator for the Italian firm Maxcom Bunker, and Libyan national Tareq Dardar, suspected of collecting monies in foreign accounts held for Bin Khalifa.

The Catanese prosecutor said that Nicola Orazia Romeo, had already been indicated in 2008 as belonging to the Santapaola clan, and an extortion racket in the Acireale and Aci Catena areas.

According to the Italian investigation, Maxcom Bunker SPA – base din Rome – would sell the fuel in France and Spain at similar prices as competitors, but benefit from buying the smuggled fuel at prices cut by 60%.

As identified by the UN panel of experts, it was Bin Khalifa who controlled the smuggling business from Zwarah and Abu Kammash ports. Some of the ships sent out at sea with the fuel, would anchor 40 and 60 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, where they turn off the automated identification system, a tracking system. After they are loaded, they return to Malta. The vessels remain adrift at least 12 nautical miles off the coast, outside Maltese territorial waters, while they discharge the fuel to other vessels that carry it to the coast.

Company records show that Khalifa once held €330,000 worth of shares in ADJ Trading, with the same amount held by Debono and another shareholder, Ibrahim Arafa Ahmed.

Khalifa was said to have controlled a militia and chaired the board of directors of a Libyan company, Tiuboda Oil and Gas Services Limited, which requested a licence to import fuel into Malta. The report said that according to the Maltese authorities, the request was rejected owing to the situation in Libya.