Libya considering letting EU ships chase people-smugglers in its waters

UN-backed prime minister says foreign ships could be permitted to operate in Libyan waters alongside national military coastguard

EU plans to move its anti-smuggling mission Operation Sophia into Libyan waters to help prevent migrants from reaching Europe
EU plans to move its anti-smuggling mission Operation Sophia into Libyan waters to help prevent migrants from reaching Europe

Libya’s UN-backed prime minister, Fayez al-Serraj, has said Nato or EU ships could be permitted to operate in Libyan waters alongside the national military coastguard to slow the flow of people-smuggling across the Mediterranean.

The move came as a report claimed elements of the Libyan coastguard were complicit in the smuggling and said returning anyone caught on boats to coastal detention centres was risky since conditions there were horrendous.

Serraj’s comments after talks at Nato on Wednesday will be a boost to EU plans to move its anti-smuggling mission Operation Sophia into Libyan waters to help prevent migrants from reaching Europe. The EU is due to discuss a comprehensive plan for Libya at a special heads of state summit in Malta on Friday.

“If there is something to be carried out jointly between the Libyan navy and any other party interested in extending a hand to the Libyan navy, that would be possible,” Serraj said.

“Of course, we have to modernise our navy flotilla and enhance its capacities. Nato or any other friendly nation on a bilateral basis could extend a hand in this.”

Smugglers’ boats currently can only be turned back to Libya if they are stopped inside Libyan waters, but both Nato and the EU need Libyan government consent to operate inside its sovereign waters. This year tens of thousands of migrants will face the risk of drowning while the smugglers’ networks benefit from the political chaos in Libya.

Serraj, struggling to gain authority inside Libya, is under pressure not to be seen to be succumbing excessively to outsiders.

On Wednesday Italy pledged €200m (£170m) in funds to several African countries as part of its drive to reduce migration at source. The foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, said the fund – aimed at Niger, Libya and Tunisia – would help bolster the “fight against human trafficking and illegal migration”.

He said Europe was not trying to build a wall but helping countries to reduce the incentive to migrate.

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