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EU to back naval force in Mediterranean

Migrants arrive on the ship of Hellenic coast guard at port of Lesbos island [AFP]

Date of publication: 18 May, 2015

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European Union ministers are set to approve plans for an unprecedented naval force in the Mediterranean after a series of shipwrecks killed hundreds of migrants.

The EU's foreign policy chief pushed on Monday for a naval force in the Mediterranean to target those smuggling people to Europe, saying that an EU agreement would hasten the US mandate that the plan needs to succeed. 

A  naval operation could be launched in the coming weeks and NATO stands ready to help if needed, officials said Monday.

The ambitious operation starting in June will involve the deployment of warships and surveillance aircraft off the coast of Libya, the epicentre of the humanitarian disaster unfolding on Europe's southern shores.

     I don't want to go back to my country. There is nobody to help me there. I beg you, keep me in Libya

More than 10,000 people have been plucked from the central Mediterranean in recent weeks attempting to enter Europe from Libya.

The International Organisation for Migration estimates that nearly 1,830 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean this year compared to 207 in the same period last year.

Libyan authorities arrested 400 illegal migrants, including several pregnant women, at dawn on Sunday as they prepared to board boats for Europe.

Most of the migrants were Somalis and Ethiopians and included "pregnant women", said Mohammed Abdelsalam al-Kuwiri, spokesman for a unit in the Tripoli-based government that combats illegal migration.

He said they were arrested as they were getting ready to board boats in Tajura, east of the capital.

Maneh from Niger and Anabelle from Nigeria said they hoped to join relatives who have already left for Europe, pleading not to be deported back home.

"I don't want to go back to my country. There is nobody to help me there. I beg you, keep me in Libya," Maneh said, tears running down her cheeks.

READ ALSO: 'Here they die slowly, at sea, they die fast'

EU meeting

The EU nations have been under increasing pressure to take action to stop the tragedy on their southern shores.

EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said she expects that a meeting of EU foreign and defence ministers will agree to establish the EU operation.

Once it has done that, it needs to generate sufficient ships and other equipment and a specific military plan before action can be taken.

Under Monday's proposals, some parts of the plan could be enforced independently but a possible destruction of boats would need UN approval, officials said.

Mogherini said that once the decision for the operation is taken Monday, the EU nations "can move forward with the planning and possibly launch the operation in the coming weeks." That would coincide with the high season for migrant crossings.

NATO has not yet been approached for help, but Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the Western military alliance stands "ready to help if there is a request."

Stoltenberg however warned on Monday that fighters from Islamic extremist groups may hide among the flood of migrants seeking refuge in Europe, increasing the need for an effective response.

"One of the problems is that there might be foreign fighters, there might be terrorists trying to hide, trying to blend in among the migrants. And this underlines the importance that we have to respond to this turmoil" he said.

The alliance, 22 of whose member states also belong to the EU, is also ready to help Libya's government with defence-capacity building "when the situation on the ground allows for that kind of cooperation," Stoltenberg said, adding he strongly welcomes UN efforts to forge a government of national unity and achieve a ceasefire.

The EU is looking for UN backing to make its naval operation as comprehensive as possible, especially since any backing from a Libyan government with limited authority on its territory would raise questions, even among EU nations.

A decision to get a naval operation off the ground on Monday would increase the EU's political clout at UN headquarters, Mogherini said.

Passing blame

Eritrea claimed Monday that human rights activists were partly to blame for the hordes of migrants heading to Europe. 

The country in the Horn of Africa is one of the largest contributors to the exodus across the Mediterranean and has in the past also blamed a CIA conspiracy for the crisis.

In a newsletter from Eritrea's mission to the African Union, the country called for "a robust and concerted effort to identify, arrest and prosecute the human trafficking criminals."

It said among the criminals were "all those who in different guises, including human rights activism, are complicit in these crimes."

Although the commentary acknowledged there was a need for "increased opportunities for citizens in countries that are currently sources of migration," it also said there should be an "end of the selective and unjustified politicisation of the migration issue" when it concerned those from Eritrea.

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