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Italian and Turkish fishing boats in high-seas skirmish

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A skirmish broke out between Turkish and Italian fishermen near the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus on Tuesday, Agence France-Presse reported, citing the Italian navy.

The navy said in a statement that people on board an unspecified number of Turkish vessels threw stones and smoke bombs at Italian vessels in waters north of Cyprus.

One of the Turkish vessels also came into contact with one of the Italian boats, slightly damaging it, the navy said.

It was not immediately clear what prompted the skirmish.

An Italian naval vessel that was patrolling nearby as part of NATO’s Sea Guardian operation launched a helicopter, while a Turkish coastguard patrol boat also intervened.

They “engaged the Turkish boats to induce them to stop” and restored control of the situation, the Italian navy said.

The Sea Guardian operation deals with maritime security, including free navigation of vessels and counterterrorism efforts. Both Turkey and Italy are members of NATO.

One of the Italian boats, the “Michelle Giacalone,” was “targeted by stones thrown by a dozen small Turkish boats” and then “rammed,” owner Luciano Giacalone told Italian news wire ANSA.

He said similar episodes had occurred in the past, “but never on such a scale.”

The clash comes a month after Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi referred to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a “dictator,” charges the latter branded “totally indecent and vulgar.”

The spat prompted Turkey’s foreign ministry to summon the Italian ambassador in Ankara.

Turkey has faced criticism from the European Union for incursions in recent years into Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), following the discovery of extensive natural gas reserves off the coast.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded the northern third in response to a coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece.

Ankara does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus, only the self-declared entity in the north.

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