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5th Feb 2023

EU set for new Libya naval mission

  • The amount of arms already in Libya has diminished the role of the UN embargo (Photo: EEAS)

The EU is rolling out a new naval operation in the Mediterranean to crack down on arms-smuggling into Libya, as it peels further away from migrant-rescues at sea.

Details are still being hammered out but foreign affairs ministers in Brussels on Monday (17 February) reached a political agreement to deploy aerial, satellite, and maritime assets, along with warships, in an effort to curb the weapons smuggling.

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EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters, when asked if the warships would be mandated to stop suspected smugglers, "For sure, they are not just having a promenade."

The proposal follows a declaration made last month in Berlin when world leaders pledged to push for a ceasefire in Libya and guarantee an arms embargo.

But issues of how many warships there will be, and rules of engagement, remain as yet unanswered. The mission is set for launch at the end of March, and is relegated to an operational area off the eastern coast of Libya.

The mission will still have to carry out rescues should they encounter people in distress but warships will be removed should it be determined that their presence in the area is a pull factor.

"In case this pull factor appears, maritime assets will be withdrawn from the relevant areas," confirmed Borrel.

Borrel remained vague on how many migrants determine a pull factor, noting the decision will most likely be based on the advice of military command.

Although studies have shown that a concentration of navy and charity rescue boats in the area do not create a pull factor, Austria - along with some other EU states - remains fearful.

"Our Austrian friends were afraid that an agreement that existed before, which was called Sophia, could create a pull affect for migration. It was one opinion," said Luxembourg's minister of foreign affairs Jean Asselborn.

The mission will also continue to train the part-financed EU-Libyan Coast Guard and its navy. People rescued at sea by the coast guard are often returned to Libyan detention centres, one of which was was hit by airstrikes last July.

The latest mission thus spells the end of Operation Sophia, launched in 2015 and named after a baby who was born on the German frigate Schleswig-Holstein.

Sophia's theoretical area of operation stretched across much of the Mediterranean but the mission had its assets pulled in March last year after Italian led-objections that people rescued would be brought to Italy.

The more narrow focus of the new mission on preventing weapons from reaching Libya has yet to be formally named but a leaked document first reported by the Associated Press had it listed as "Operation EU Active Surveillance."

At least six foreign nations are fuelling conflict in Libya with some supplying weapons, mercenaries and military advisors in a country fractured by war.

Among them is the United Arab Emirates, said to be one of the biggest violators of the arms embargo. The country is also suspected of shelling a detention centre near Tripoli last July, possibly with French-built Mirage warplanes.

The UAE, along with Egypt, France, Jordan and Russia back Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar.

Haftar wants to take over the UN and EU-recognised GNA, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, who is now receiving help from Turkey.

Austria and Hungary derail EU naval plan on Libya arms

An EU naval operation set for launch in April off the Libyan coast may be derailed following objections by Austria and Hungary. Both want the power to end the mission should migrants be lured into being rescued.

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The EU is reorienting funds to boost the Libyan coast guard - amid fears that the escalating violence in the north African country plus the coronavirus will force a large exodus of people to take boats towards Europe.

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