EU foreign ministers today agreed to boost the bloc’s anti-people smuggling operation in the Mediterranean to include training of the Libyan coastguard and enforcing a UN arms embargo.
Ministers also agreed to extend Operation Sophia’s mandate by one year, a statement said, as the European Union tries to stem a flood of migrants from North Africa and beyond trying to get to Europe.
“The Council (of member states) extended until 27 July 2017 the mandate for EU NAVFOR MED Operation Sophia, the EU naval operation to disrupt the business model of human smugglers and traffickers in the southern central Mediterranean,” a statement said after the ministers met in Luxembourg.
“The Council also reinforced the operation’s mandate by adding two supporting tasks — training of the Libyan coastguard and navy, and contributing to the implementation of the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya.”
The EU launched Operation Sophia last year after hundreds of migrants died when their rickety boats sank off southern Italy, sparking popular outrage at their plight.
This Central Mediterranean route has seen more migrants risk their lives in recent weeks after the EU reached an accord with Turkey in March to halt an influx of more than a million refugees who crossed the Aegean to reach Europe last year.
Operation Sophia currently comprises five vessels and three helicopters charged with intercepting smugglers’ boats and destroying them, in international waters.
Officials said they will review what additional assets the mission will need in July so Sophia can meet its new tasks.
They said the EU will likely train a first batch of some 100 Libyan coastguard officers and then another at which point 10 patrol boats ordered by slain dictator Moamer Kadhafi from Italy will be delivered.
The EU force cannot enter Libyan territorial waters without a formal request by the UN-backed Government of National Accord which is trying to extend its shakey authority from Tripoli to the rest of the country.
The UN Security Council last week authorised the EU to intercept ships suspected of arms smuggling to Libya as part of moves to shore up the new government.
The Western-backed overthrow of Kadhafi in 2011 plunged Libya into chaos, with rival rebel forces seizing as much territory as they could.
Islamic State jihadi groups have taken advantage of the upheaval to establish a presence, deepening EU concerns over security on its southern flank.
The arms embargo was first imposed on Libya in 2011. UN monitors have reported arms shipments from Egypt, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan to the various factions.
Libya is awash with weapons, with some 20 million of all types in a country of just six million people, according to the UN.