Turkish-escorted freighter suspected of violating arms embargo (v3)

(B2) A cargo ship suspected of transporting weapons to Libya is closely watched by the European operation EUNAVFOR Med Irini

Accompanied by the Turkish Navy

Le Cirkin, a Turkish merchant vessel flying the Tanzanian flag was detected on Wednesday (June 10), southwest of Crete, heading towards Libya. There are strong suspicions that the Cirkin is not carrying out a completely ordinary transport, but that he is transporting illegal weapons. This cargo ship had departed from Istanbul, Turkey, with a stopover at Haydapasa, a port on the Bosphorus, on June 2. But, on the high seas, it did not sail like any merchant ship. He was accompanied, near and far, by at least three frigates of the Turkish Navy. Not to mention a fighter aircraft that did not trail far.

An unsuccessful check

The helicopter of the Greek frigate Spetses (1) then received the order from the EUNAVFOR Med Operation Commander Irini to take off to check the ship. Normal procedure in case of suspicion on a vessel. The captain and crew of the merchant vessel did not respond to calls to inspect the helicopter. It was the Turks who responded, indicating that the ship was under " protection of the Turkish Republic “, according to Greek television AN1 TV. The helicopter then returned aboard the frigate. the Spetses was however ordered to follow the ship from a distance.

Confirmed information from the European side

According to a European official, whose remarks were collected directly by B2, the 'guys' of Operation Irini have " followed the usual procedure ". They attempted to hail the suspect vessel. A call for identify the ship: in order to check with it where it comes from, what is its point of departure, its destination and the nature of the goods and goods on board ". Procedure used in effect when there are possible suspicions » and then allowing « take measurements and conduct an inspection ". But " the Turks replied that [the procedure] could not continue ».

A proven Turkish refusal

In fact, the procedure has stopped because, to carry out the inspection, when there is a flag State, it is necessary " obtain the consent of the flag State (NB: when it is displayed clearly or when there is no suspicion that there is fraud). Permission apparently not obtained. But above all, the Turks gave an explanation for the refusal of inspection. Europeans claim liaise with them to verify and understand the reasons for the negative response the operation received ».

Well arrived at destination in Libya

The cargo ship finally arrived at its destination in Misrata (Libya) Thursday (June 11) around 10 a.m. according to data from its AIS, consulted by B2, on maritime tracking sites. And he unloaded his goods there, which did not quite resemble the words of the Turks of " medical material ».

Comment: a textbook case planned in advance, a real test for the European Union 

The Turks are perfectly within their rights. Even if they do so in full view of everyone, with patent bad faith. It is the strict application of the law of the sea. Any ship operating a public service mission cannot be inspected by a warship.

This argument had already been used in its time by the government of Tripoli to protect its ships from an overly precise incursion by the ships of Operation Sophia (2), arguing for international immunity (3). This hypothesis was very probable and envisaged from the start of Operation Irini. This is a real test for the European Union of its ability to impose international embargo rules.

According to our information, the Turkish question could be raised during the meeting of foreign ministers on Monday (June 15) in the news items. Initially, it was more related to the action of the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the drilling off the island of Cyprus. This episode adds one more file in the complicated relations between Brussels and Ankara.

This also poses a serious problem on the side of the Atlantic Alliance. That an Ally openly violates, by military force, an embargo decreed by the United Nations, is rather embarrassing. That another Ally tries to control it without success, is rather a serious blow to the solidarity of the alliance.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Read also: The Cirkin was not at its first attempt. A French ship illuminated by radar

  1. Le Spetses is currently the only active vessel in the operation. the St. George, which will be the flagship, should join it soon. But he was still at the dock yesterday.
  2. Lire: The Libyan government circumvents the arms embargo. With Sophia's consent?
  3. Lire: The Lufy affair: intra-Libyan arms trafficking? a European problem?

Article updated Thursday night June 11 (arrival of the ship in Libya), Friday June 12 (European explanations, additional note on the Lufy affair, NATO comment) and June 17 on the 'Read also'

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).