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Western security officials attempting to crack smuggling networks trafficking fuel, weapons and humans across the Mediterranean are focusing on fuel tankers believed to be illegally shipping oil products from Libya to Europe.
Western and Libyan officials believe fuel smugglers use the same networks, vessels and ports that also make Libya a regional hub for trafficking weapons and humans. In recent months, Spanish, French and Maltese officials have begun tracking the movements of vessels in the Mediterranean, hoping to stop the illegal trade, security officials said. Shutting down fuel-smuggling routes could undermine networks that also bring migrants to Europe from Libya, the officials said.
Fuel smuggling is "providing a significant source of revenue for local armed groups and criminal networks" in Libya, according to a U.N. Security Council report on Libya reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
One vessel U.N. investigators and western security officials said they are focusing on is the Basbosa Star, a merchant vessel flagged in the Pacific island chain of Palau. The ship has been involved in a string of transactions that officials believe shed light on the trafficking networks.
In January 2015, the ship loaded its 1,621-ton capacity hold with liquids off the coast of Libya and headed for the island of Malta, according to the officials and maritime data company Windward. Five times over the following two months, the tanker pumped some of its cargo into the hold of another fuel vessel, which made deliveries to a fuel-tank depot in Malta, according to the officials and Windward.
The Basbosa Star made a similar trip as recently as last month, loading up near the Libyan coast and then passing some of its cargo to another vessel bound for Sicily, according to Windward.
On one such voyage earlier this year, when the Basbosa Star approached the Libyan coast it turned off its radio, according to Windward. Six days later, it reappeared on its way to Malta, where it transferred some of its cargo to a Ukrainian vessel called the Ruta, according to Windward.
The data company can determine when a vessel is loaded or unloaded using radio signals sent by vessels detailing how low they are sitting in the water.
On Feb. 16, Windward said, the Ruta unloaded the oil products in the Sicilian port of Augusta. The port hosts the base of the main Italian Navy force dedicated to stopping illegal immigration.
Security officials say that they suspect the Basbosa Star is smuggling motor fuel to Europe from Libya, a potentially lucrative business. Smugglers can make a profit by buying fuel products in Libya-a major oil producer that subsidizes fuel locally-and then selling them at much higher prices in Europe, where taxes keep prices high. The center of the illegal trade is in the western port of Zuwara, the U.N. report said, and it is also the main hub for human trafficking.
The U.N. report said the Basbosa Star is owned, through a company, by Darren Debono of Malta, Ahmed Arafa of Egypt, and Fahmi Bin Khalifa of Zuwara, Libya. A lawyer for the men said they have never owned the ship and had done nothing wrong.
The general manager of the Ruta's owner Manchester Shipping said he couldn't comment.
Mediterranean smuggling has become a rising concern for Western governments with the rise of Islamic State in Libya, where the radical group controls some areas along illicit trade routes. Libyan officials say members of Islamic State have been arrested in Tunisia for smuggling fuel products in from Libya, though there is no evidence the group has sent products to Europe yet.
"Fuel smuggling is financing other activities such as gunrunning, drugs smuggling and human trafficking," said Omar al-Sinki, a Libyan government official who has worked on smuggling issues.
The illegal trade exploits divisions that have developed in the North African nation since the 2011 ouster and death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The country is ruled by an Islamist government in Tripoli and an internationally supported government in the east. United Nations-backed peace talks led to an agreement to form a unity government, but the militias that control most of the country have blocked its creation.
Libya has also emerged as a major center for arms dealing, as much of Gadhafi's military arsenal was taken over by militias. Some of those weapons were sold to dealers in Turkey for use in Syria, according to the U.N.
According to the EU, about 157,000 people fled North Africa by sea-mostly from Libya-for the bloc in 2015, part of a wave of migrants that has flooded the continent in recent months.
Al-Sadiq Al-Saour, the head of investigations at the Libyan attorney general's office, said fuel smugglers are tough to catch because the complex trades involve European middlemen and are done in international waters.
"We need cooperation [with European countries] to stop them," said Mr. Al-Saour who is based in Tripoli but independent of both governments.
Western governments have been cautious about working with Libyan institutions until a unity government is formed, and they aren't working in a coordinated fashion with the country on smuggling yet, security officials said.
Officials at Maltese and Italian antifraud police and customs declined to comment.
Western officials say tracing the origin of the fuel is further complicated by the fact much of the subsidized fuel sold in Libya is imported. Militias that help run Libya often benefit from smuggling of all kinds.
Source: Wall Street Journal