UN report uncovers new details of fuel smuggling activity off Malta’s coast

Report by United Nation’s Panel of Experts on Libya mentions case of a ship suspected of conducting transfers of fuel off Malta’s shores

The Goeast, an oil tanker suspect of partaking in fuel smuggling, which, upon being fired upon by the Libyan coastguard, headed north to Malta, staying adrift outside the island's territorial waters for eight days
The Goeast, an oil tanker suspect of partaking in fuel smuggling, which, upon being fired upon by the Libyan coastguard, headed north to Malta, staying adrift outside the island's territorial waters for eight days

A United Nations report, prepared by its Panel of Experts on Libya, has uncovered information about suspected illegal activity involving fuel smuggling by vessels operating off of Malta’s coastline.

The report, which was presented to the UN Security Council, contains details of the Panel’s findings up to mid-July 2018.

According to the findings, fuel smuggling by sea was brought to a temporary halt from around mid-2017 to the beginning of 2018, with this being due to various factors, including the arrests in Italy in October 2017 of Darren Debono and other individuals who were part of the same criminal network as Fahmi Bin Khalifa, a major smuggler in Zuwarah.

Debono, an ex-Maltese national team footballer, was arrested in October 2017 in Lampedusa following an investigation by Italian police into a Libyan-Italian racket where Bin Khalifa supplied smuggled Libyan fuel through Debono’s ships, to an Italian merchant.

By the first three months of 2018, smuggling by sea had resumed, but with significant changes in the smuggling network, the modi operandi and the routes employed, the report states.

The report describes how vessels smuggling fuel sail south from Malta to the Gulf of Gabes in Tunisia. Once around 40 to 60 nautical miles off the Tunisian coast, they most times switch off their automatic vessel tracking system, and head east to Zuwarah in Libya to load fuel.

After loading, they usually return to Malta, the report says, with some of the vessels remaining adrift at least 12 nautical miles of the coast, outside Maltese territorial water. The fuel is then discharged onto other vessels to take it to its final destination.

In relation to this point, the report recommends that UN member states be authorised to, either nationally or through regional organisations, inspect vessels bound to or from Libya – when on the high seas or off the Libyan coast – which they have reasonable grounds to believe are illegally exporting crude oil or refined petroleum products.

The report goes on to document the cases of two ships, suspected of smuggling fuel, where Malta is mentioned.

On 6 October 2017, the Libyan coastguard opened fire on the Goeast, a vessel registered in the Comoros, which at the time had its tracking system disabled.

Following this incident, the tanker headed north to Malta, off the Grand Harbour, outside Maltese territorial waters, and remained adrift there between 11 and 19 October.

According to Maltese authorities, no request was made by the Goeast to enter any port, the report states.

The vessel then left to the Sea of Crete on 19 October, and crossed the Dardanelles strait three days later.

On 24 October, it arrived at Ahirkapi, near Istanbul, and Turkey granted the tanker anchorage and access to the port.

The Panel asked Turkish authorities about what the ship’s cargo consisted of, but did not receive any information, and was subsequently unable to confirm whether the Goeast illicitly exported fuel.

Since the incident, the tanker has not operated in the central Mediterranean area.

Another ship, the Noor, registered under a Tanzanian flag, which is alleged to have illicitly loaded fuel at the end of October 2017, is likely to have conducted one or several ship-to-ship transfers off Malta’s shore, the report says.

The vessel set sail off Malta on 23 October 2017, heading towards Gabes in Tunisia. On 26 October, while 41 nautical miles off Gabes port, the ship turned east to Zuwarah’s coast, remaining anchored there in two different locations between 28 October to 1 November 2017.

The vessel disconnected its tracking system on 16 November, while on its way back to a point off Malta, where it arrived on 19 November.

The report notes that the Noor set sail from and arrived to the same location off Malta, outside its territorial water.

There were strong indications of illegal activity involving the Noor, but no confirmation was possible, and the vessel was scrapped in January 2018.