EU foreign ministers have agreed to launch an operation against networks smuggling people across the Mediterranean. The group also agreed to extend economic sanctions against Russia by a further six months.
Luxembourg – EU foreign ministers formally approved Monday the launch of the first phase of a military operation to target people smugglers in the Mediterranean, officials said.
Ministers of the 28-country bloc meeting in Luxembourg agreed that operations against the traffickers should first begin in international waters, until the EU is granted permission to enter Libyan territory.
Ships and aircraft to carry out an initial intelligence gathering mission are to be made available for the operation within the next week, officials said.
EU officials have warned that casualties were possible after deciding to launch military action against people smugglers in the Mediterranean.
“The use of firepower will be done in such a way that we do all we can to prevent any casualties to anyone,” said one EU official. “There is a difference between smugglers and migrants. If they are migrants, we will be even more cautious.”
Brussels says the operation is needed to curb the number of deaths at sea by tackling people trafficking networks at source in Libya, from where most of the migrants begin their sea journey.
“We will start implementing the first phase of the operation in the coming days. This covers information-gathering and patrolling on the high seas to support the detection and monitoring of smuggling networks,” said EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.
Migrants ‘not the target’
The EU has been looking for UN support to take action against the smugglers, who have profited from the ongoing turmoil within Libya. The traffickers are reported to have turned significant profits from their operations, which often place migrants at risk aboard unsafe vessels that are abandoned by their crews.
“The targets are not the migrants,” said Mogherini. “The targets are those that are making money on their lives and too often on their deaths.”
Intervention has been made more difficult by the fact that two governments are vying for power in Libya.
A record of some 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean last year, with Eritrea, Somalia and Syria among the countries from which most came. More than 100,000 have already made the perilous journey this year, mainly arriving in Italy and Greece, while about 2,000 have died or are missing.
The ministers also formally agreed to prolong economic sanctions against Russia – over its purported interference in Ukraine – until January next year. Officials said the decision had been taken to ensure Moscow respects and implements the terms of a peace accord between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The 28-nation bloc had initially imposed travel bans and asset freezes against Russian and Ukrainian figures, but took firmer action after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down in July last year over territory that was held by pro-Moscow rebels.
Brussels imposed sanctions on Russian banking, oil and defense sectors and has warned that more sanctions might follow if Moscow is seen to be breaking the Minsk agreement, which was signed in February this year.
The latter phases of the plan will lead to European forces boarding and in some cases deliberately sinking vessels, if a mandate from the UN is secured. Officials sought to allay concerns that some migrants might be accidentally killed if this part of the scheme goes ahead.