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EU approves military operation targeting people smuggling

By Darren Mara
Tuesday, May 19, 2015

European Union foreign ministers have agreed to set up a naval mission in the Mediterranean to target those smuggling people from Libya to Europe.

As Darren Mara reports, it's considered the first step to setting up a military operation that would require a resolution from the United Nations Security Council to be fully operational.

The European Union has described its latest proposal as a measure to disrupt the business model of people-smugglers operating out of Libya, ferrying people into Southern Europe.

The plan involves sending a Mediterranean naval mission to destroy boats used for people smuggling, and arresting those operating the network.

Speaking after meeting European foreign ministers in Brussels, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini says there's a need to work quickly.

"I would say that there is a clear sense of urgency in this respect, also because we all know very well that June is the beginning of summer, and in this operation seasons are important. And as summer comes, more people are travelling and we want to have - at least I'd like to have - the operation in place as soon as possible if it has to deter traffickers and smugglers' organisations."

Ms Mogherini says the aim is to launch the operation next month, with a headquarters in Rome under an Italian admiral.

It's in response to thousands of deaths at sea, including the drowning of more than 800 people on a single vessel in the Mediterranean last month.

Tens of thousands of people have been arriving in southern European nations like Italy, Malta and Greece, many of whom have been rescued at sea by thinly stretched national navies.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says planning for a broader response to the problem can now begin.

"The mission, its concept, was today agreed. There was no voices against it, the discussions continue. The next steps will be established more precisely when the legal basis is clarified, this too was discussed without any argument. If we want to take action on the high seas, if we want to board, if we want to operate in Libya's territorial waters, then we need a resolution from the Security Council which we still don't have today."

The United Kingdom is playing the lead role at the UN Security Council in drafting a resolution that would give the EU a legal basis for using military force against people traffickers.

It's thought there will be three stages to the naval operation: intelligence-gathering, inspection and detection of smuggling boats and then destruction of those boats.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says securing Europe's borders is also a matter of international security.

"There might be foreign fighters, there might be terrorists also trying to hide, to blend in among the migrants. And this just underlines the importance that we have to respond to this turmoil, to these threats in many different ways."

Parts of a broader plan to deal with the influx of people on Europe's southern borders remain snagged on disagreement over national quotas for housing those seeking asylum.

One of Libya's closest European neighbours, Italy, is usually the favoured destination of traffickers.

A growing number of countries - including the United Kingdom, Hungary, Poland and now Spain - are opposing the European Commission's plan and its suggestion that quotas should be used to calculate how many migrants each country would receive.

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni says the quotas question cannot be side stepped.

"It would be frankly very sad to see that the initiative regarding the quotas and the burden sharing of what is a European problem, not only an Italian none, is taking a step backwards."

The UN estimates 60,000 people have already tried to make the perilous crossing from Libya this year.

Many are fleeing conflict or poverty in countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia.


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