Tensions in the Mediterranean have again erupted with Turkey, this time over the contents of a large Turkish cargo ship suspected of carrying weapons to Libya. The Turkish government, according to several news agencies, has prevented a German military ship from inspecting the vessel which finally was not carrying any arms cargo.
But the clash has reached as far as Brussels and Ankara, which have been summoned to talk about what happened and exchange hard statements just before the European summit on 10-11 December where the idea of punishing Turkey will be discussed.
On Sunday evening, the German frigate Hamburg stopped the Turkish flag freighter Roseline A as part of a European Union mission called Operation Irini. But the search had to be abandoned after Ankara protested and denied the permission to investigate the ship.
The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the inspection as "unauthorised and blunt" and added that all members of the crew of the cargo ship were searched by force.
Afterwards, the Turkish Vice-Minister Sedat Onel summoned the Italian ambassador, the German embassy's affairs officer and the EU envoy in Turkey to formally protest the incident.
Germany has rejected the complaints of Turkey and claims that all protocols were followed in the mission, adding that no weapons or illegal materials were found on the ship. Operation Irini was launched by the European Union on 31 March to monitor and enforce the UN Security Council Resolution banning arms shipments to Libya.
The mission uses air, satellite and maritime assets to help "bring stability to Libya and peace to its people". Libya has been divided between two warring factions since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011: the UN-recognised Tripoli unit government (ANG), which is supported by Turkey, and the eastern forces in Tobruk led by Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
The rival parties signed a permanent ceasefire last Friday. This signature was accompanied by dozens of peace talks held in Geneva, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, where the opposing parties are working on the idea of creating a new constitution and calling elections in the near future.
German personnel from the Irini mission boarded the cargo ship Roseline A to search for suspicious weapons at 17:54 (15:54 CET) on Sunday. The team met the ship in international waters, approximately 200 kilometres north of the port of Benghazi.
The ship had left Yarimca in Turkey on 20 November and was sailing to Misrata in Libya. The captain of the cargo ship had cooperated and shared detailed information on the cargo and the journey of the ship, according to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ankara says that the German armed forces boarded the ship by helicopter and carried out a search that lasted several hours. "All the personnel, including the captain, were searched by force, all the personnel were gathered and detained in one place, and the containers were searched by force, with an armed soldier standing at the head of the captain," said the Chancellery in a statement.
Pictures released by the Demiroren news agency show German soldiers searching the ship's crew, who are forced to stand with their hands on their heads in the control room.
Turkey says that the inspection was carried out without their consent, nor that of the ship's captain, and violated international law. "This intervention, which started on an ambiguous suspicion and lasted until midnight, was finished only because of the persistent objections of our country".
Germany has rejected the accusations of Turkey and says that the mission followed all protocols. According to a spokesman in Berlin, the military had warned the Turkish authorities of their intention to inspect the ship and, in the absence of objections, they proceeded to board it four hours later.
"The frigate Hamburg acted in accordance with the instructions of the operation command and according to the regulations set out in the mandate for the operation". The decision to search was not taken by the German army but by the Operation Irini headquarters in Rome, the spokesman added.
Berlin confirmed that the inspection was subsequently cancelled by the mission leadership after Ankara vetoed the search, and says the team remained on board until they could safely return to the frigate.
Turkey had said that the ship was carrying food, paint and humanitarian aid materials from the port of Ambarli to Misrata. The 148 meter long freighter was given permission to continue its journey to Libya and was expected to arrive in port at 21:00 CET on Monday.
At the extraordinary European summit last October, although not everyone wanted to speak out, the leaders reviewed the conflict between Turkey and Greece and, especially, Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean.
The reason? The rights to drill for energy resources in an area of the eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey has sailed freely in the areas it considers its own, in addition to using the maritime space ceded to it by Libya. But it has been moving out of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
This led in the summer to the sending of Greek naval fleets and the alignment of the two countries' ships in the waters of the Mediterranean. All this while the leaders involved exchanged verbal attacks at every public appearance.
Even the NATO leader was personally involved in bringing down the scale of tension. But after much talk, Greece continues to denounce the invasion of its maritime space by Turkish ships and the European Union will be forced to address the issue in the next two weeks.