NATO deploys warships to hunt refugee smugglers
NATO launched an unprecedented naval mission in the Aegean Sea on Thursday to tackle people smugglers taking migrants and refugees from the Turkish coast.
Alliance members Germany, Greece and Turkey had previously requested assistance in tackling Europe's biggest migrant crisis since the Second World War.
It also comes as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to send the millions of refugees in Turkey to European Union member states, as he slammed the bloc's behaviour in the crisis.
In a speech that stepped up his denunciations of Western policy, Erdogan confirmed he had threatened EU leaders at a summit meeting in November that Turkey may say "goodbye" to the refugees.
"We do not have the word 'idiot' written on our foreheads. We will be patient but we will do what we have to. Don't think that the planes and the buses are there for nothing. We will do the necessary," Erdogan told a business forum in Ankara.
|Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to send the millions of refugees in Turkey to European Union member states|
Speaking after NATO defence ministers approved the mission, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO was "now directing the standing maritime group to move into the Aegean without delay and start maritime surveillance activities".
The group comprises three ships that are currently under German command.
The NATO chief said the migrant crisis, driven by conflict and turmoil in Syria across the Middle East and North Africa, posed a major security threat to the 28-nation alliance.
More than 70,000 have made the dangerous crossing in January, with at least 400 dying in the past six weeks alone, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The fear now is that hundreds of thousands more could follow this year, with no prospect of a negotiated solution to the war in Syria -which has killed more than 260,000 people and displaced half the population since March 2011.
|More than 70,000 have made the dangerous crossing in January, with over 400 dying in the past six weeks alone, according to the International Organization for Migration|
Turkey - the only Muslim-majority nation in NATO and with one of its largest armies - was the main transit country for the more than one million migrants who reached Europe last year.
"This is not about stopping and pushing back (refugee boats)... but about critical surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks," Stoltenberg said.
The move is a major step forward into humanitarian territory for NATO, an alliance formed during the depths of the Cold War and which normally reserves its assets for strictly military matters.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Turkey on Monday, agreeing to make the request to NATO as thousands more refugees fled heavy fighting around the Syrian city of Aleppo.
US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter earlier said that the NATO ministers had backed the plan.
"NATO and all the parties at the table this morning indicated a willingness for NATO to support and be a part of that operation," Carter said.
"All three of those countries emphasised the need for NATO to act quickly, with which the United States strongly agrees, because this are people's lives and destinies at stake here."