Gozitan fishermen have given the government up to the end of this month to take up their request for assistance against Tunisian fishermen, who they say are stealing their fish and destroying their property.

National Fisheries Cooperative secretary Raymond Bugeja told a news conference at Mgarr Harbour yesterday: "We are requesting a military presence when we are out fishing for lampuki and if concrete action is not taken by the end of the month, we will have to defend ourselves as best as we can."

Mr Bugeja said that Gozitan fishermen had yet again ended up the victims of Tunisian fishermen a few days ago while they were fishing for lampuki 20 to 80 miles west of Malta. At the time there were some 20 Gozitan vessels fishing in the area, each carrying about six to eight fishermen.

Mr Bugeja claimed Tunisian fishermen were netting fish from under the Gozitans' floats, which they were then vandalising and setting adrift.

There were also instances when the Tunisians had driven their boats directly at the Gozitans, he alleged.

Tunisian vessels often outnumbered those of Gozitans by three to one.

These incidents, Mr Bugeja said, had been going on for at least five years.

Following more incidents in recent days, the fishermen submitted reports to the Fisheries Department in Gozo and even contacted the fisheries director while out at sea.

But they claim nothing has been done by the Maltese authorities.

Mr Bugeja said that last year, the fishermen had explained the gravity of the problem to the fisheries minister and asked the foreign affairs minister to put pressure on the Tunisian authorities.

However, he questioned whether any pressure had been applied at all.

Mr Bugeja said that on October 26, the prime minister had told fishermen that following discussions with his Tunisian counterpart on the problem, the issue had now been resolved.

Mr Bugeja said that the Tunisian Embassy had said in a letter on October 18 that its government was investigating the matter.

"Has an investigation really been held and what were its results?" Mr Bugeja asked.

Fisherman Peppi Azzopardi said the Gozitans feared that one of their vessels would by sunk by the Tunisians if the incidents continued.

Mr Bugeja said the government was duty bound to protect its citizens and the cooperative was therefore requesting a military presence in the zone used by Gozitan fishermen.

He said that enough time had been allowed for a diplomatic solution, but this had not yielded results.

The Gozitans were not against Tunisians having their own floats in international waters and they were willing to cooperate, but they were against them vandalising their property.

In the coming days, a protest letter will be presented to the Tunisian ambassador and Foreign Affairs Minister Joe Borg.

The fishermen are encouraging both the Maltese and Tunisian governments to take immediate steps before it is too late. They are also holding the two governments responsible for any future incident, or possible tragedy.

"We will not let anyone ridicule our rights and if the government again fails to take concrete action to resolve the problem, we are ready to defend ourselves as best we can," Mr Bugeja said.

Both Fisheries Minister Ninu Zammit and director of fisheries Anthony Gruppetta were unavailable for comment as they are abroad.

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