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4th Aug 2021

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EU firms up plans for Libya military mission

  • Rescued migrants on board SOS Mediterranee's Ocean Viking in July (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

The EU is firming up plans for a military mission to Libya in order to compete for influence with foreign powers there, according to a leaked paper seen by EUobserver.

Libya's peace process required "large-scale disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) of combatants as well as a fundamental security sector reform (SSR)," the internal paper written by the EU foreign service, dated 1 July, said.

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"In this context, an EU military CSDP [Common Security and Defence Policy] engagement should ... be considered in order not to leave the entire field of activity in the military domain to third states," it added.

"In the long term and when conditions allow, a military CSDP engagement with a mandate to support the SSR process in the military domain [should] be considered," it said.

It did not name the third states in what it called the "competitive situation" in Libya.

But Chad, Egypt, Jordan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have all become involved in Libya's civil war.

And the EU paper did allude to Turkey, when it said one "third country" had "continued denial of inspections" of suspected arms shipments to Libya in violation of a UN embargo.

The same country "maintains a strong military presence in Libya and provides training to selected armed forces in western Libya", especially Libya's coastguard and navy, it noted, after Turkey sent troops to Libya last year.

And Turkey's defence ministry has been tweeting about interception of migrants off Libya's coast, prompting fears that Ankara may gain further leverage over the EU by taking control of the central Mediterranean migration route as well as the Greek one it already controlled.

The EU report painted a worrying picture of Libya, saying there were still "many" foreign fighters there and that oil, arms, and human trafficking was going on unabated.

An EU naval mission, Irini, is trying to curb smuggling and gather intelligence.

And the EU is hoping to compete with Turkish influence among Libya's naval authorities by giving gifts with strings attached.

"The provision of equipment [by Irini to the Libyan coast guard] should be linked to the acceptance of associated [EU] training by the Libyan authorities," the leaked EU report said.

Libya has a long Mediterranean Sea coast from where thousands of migrants cross to the EU each year.

It also has a vast desert border in the south controlled by tribesmen, militias, and traffickers with links to jihadist groups, creating security risks for Europe.

But "Libyan authorities have expressed a need for EU support on Libya's borders, including in the south," the EU paper said.

"Should the Libyan authorities agree, this may open the possibility of obtaining overflight rights for EU aerial surveillance assets over Libyan territory," in the southern desert, it added.

France echoes EU

Member states' ambassadors were due to have read the report in the past two weeks, but the EU foreign service did not say if they discussed its proposals further.

For his part, French foreign minister Jean Yves Le Drian echoed the leaked EU memo in a speech at the United Nations Security Council in New York on Thursday (15 July).

"It is time to implement a progressive, symmetrical, and sequenced timetable for the departure of foreign elements from both sides," Le Drian said.

"The European Union, Italy, and France are ready to do more to support the training and equipment of the Libyan coast guard," he said.

But for all Le Drian's concern "for the Libyan people [who] are aspiring to live in a safe, united, and sovereign country", France has complicated the peace process by giving dogged military support to a Libyan warlord, Khalifa Haftar, who has tried to conquer Tripoli from Libya's UN and EU-recognised government.

"France, it seems, unconditionally supports Haftar, which fundamentally contradicts the logic of the UN-led process," Moncef Kartas, a former UN weapons inspector, previously told EUobserver.

People in need

The EUMC, an advisory body to EU foreign-affairs chief Josep Borrell, also said in the leaked paper Europe must abide by "international human-rights law, international refugee law and ... the law of the sea," in all it did, while taking special care of vulnerable women.

But for all its concern over people in distress, the EU push to train and equip Libya's naval masters might well set alarm bells ringing on that front.

The Libyan coast guard and navy have intercepted some 16,000 people trying to cross the central Mediterranean so far this year.

Many are sent to government and militia-run detention centres.

EUobserver recently spoke to survivors of the Libya-EU route when it joined a rescue-ship, the Ocean Viking, operated by French NGO SOS Mediterranee, in waters between Libya and Italy and Malta.

And their stories of abuse in Libyan camps were corroborated in a new report by international NGO Amnesty International, which also said prisoners in Libyan detention centres were subjected to "torture, sexual violence, forced labour."

"Libyan authorities have rewarded those reasonably suspected of committing such violations with positions of power and higher ranks," Amnesty International said.

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