EU set for new naval mission off Libyan coast, but will not rescue migrants

The EU is rolling out a new naval operation in the Mediterranean to crack down on arms-smuggling into Libya, the latest effort to reduce the influx of weapons into the country and bring the civil war to an end.

EU foreign ministers on Monday agreed to launch a new military mission off the Libyan coast to enforce a UN arms embargo. The 27-member bloc reached a political agreement to deploy aerial, satellite, and maritime assets, along with warships, in an effort to curb weapons’ smuggling to Libya. The war pitches the UN-recognised government in Tripoli against the forces of Gen Khalifa Haftar, which control most of eastern and southern Libya.

There’s been a UN arms embargo on the country since 2011, but it hasn’t been effectively enforced.

The EU’s military mission is to operate in the eastern Mediterranean, away from the central routes used by irregular migrants seeking to reach Europe from Libya.

There have been bitter divisions in the EU over the possibility of the mission encouraging irregular migrants who, according to international maritime laws, have to be rescued if found in a situation of distress. Ships – whether military or civilian – are obliged to rescue people in distress at sea.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said that if the EU ships proved to be a “pull factor” for migrants desperate to reach Europe “the mission will be stopped”.

The EU mission “Operation Sophia” has served the purpose of reducing the influx of weapons into Libya for years. However, it currently only uses aircraft and no ships.

Operation Sophia ships had repeatedly rescued people from distress in the past which led a number of EU member countries to call for the ships to be withdrawn because the mission had become an incentive for smugglers and refugees to cross the Mediterranean.

Details of the new Operation Sophia are expected to be released in the weeks ahead.

Felix Dappah

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