BRUSSELS (AFP) - EU leaders gathering in Brussels on Thursday will consider launching a military operation against human traffickers in Libya, in a bold effort to halt the deadly flow of refugees trying to reach Europe by sea.
As survivors laid bare the full horror of last weekend's catastrophic shipwreck near Libya, a draft statement for the summit seen by AFP committed leaders to "undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers." The EU's top diplomat Federica Mogherini "is invited to immediately begin preparations for a possible security and defence policy operation to this effect, in accordance with international law," the draft added.
A diplomatic source said EU members were preparing to approve the statement, reflecting the union's readiness to take more decisive action against people smugglers, who pack rickety boats to overflowing with people fleeing conflict and hardship in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Monday evoked the possibility of "targeted interventions" against the Libya-based smugglers that would fall short of a full military intervention.
"You can't be serious about this problem if you don't take Prime Minister Renzi's proposals seriously, though you have to go through the legal and operational issues," said a senior European official on the condition of anonymity.
If approved, the operation would be the first time EU governments used military force to fight illegal migration.
"No one is talking about boots on the ground," a diplomatic source cautioned, adding that a potential requirement for UN backing would depend on the reach of the mission. "This isn't a war." EU leaders go into Thursday's summit under huge pressure to both check the tide of migrants landing on European shores and provide greater succour to those whose boats run into trouble at sea.
The draft also proposes that member states provide resettlement to 5,000 migrants, but this is a small fraction of the number that arrive on the shores of southern Europe each year.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday contrasted his country's hosting of two million refugees from Syria with the EU's approach of "letting the boats sink and leaving them to their deaths".
The vast majority of the Libya shipwreck's estimated 800 victims were locked in the hold or the middle deck of the 20-metre (66-foot) converted fishing boat when it collided with a Portuguese cargo ship responding to its distress signal.
One of the 28 survivors described nightmarish conditions on board.
"Those who had the least money were stuffed into the hold at the bottom, and locked inside," a Bangladeshi teenager identified as Abdirizzak told Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper.
When the first collision happened in pitch darkness, scenes of pure terror ensued.
"Everyone was screaming, pushing, punching, elbowing - terrified. From below we could hear those who were locked in shouting 'Help, Help!'" Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Catania said they had asked a judge to charge the boat's Tunisian captain with illegal confinement as well as culpable homicide, causing a shipwreck and aiding illegal immigration.
The skipper, Mohammed Ali Malek, 27, is alleged to have been drinking and smoking hashish while steering the boat. A Syrian crew member Mahmud Bikhit, 25, is also in custody.
The exact number of victims may never be known as the wreck sank in one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean.
A further 1,106 migrants landed on Italy's shores Wednesday after being picked up at sea by the coastguard, bringing the total currently housed in reception centres around the country to 70,507, according to the interior ministry.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is reportedly ready to offer the services of a Royal Navy warship which could seek to prevent migrant boats from leaving Libya.
But experts question whether such action, modelled on Australia's approach to its migrant crisis, could be done without UN authorisation.
EU governments have already agreed to double the resources available to a maritime border patrol mission, but that has been attacked as too little, too late by refugee and rights groups.
"Today we know that the fact that there is no effective rescue operation in place has not reduced but rather increased the number of people who try to cross the Mediterranean," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said Thursday.
Sunday's disaster was the worst in a series of migrant shipwrecks that have claimed more than 1,750 lives this year - 30 times higher than the same period in 2014 - and nearly 5,000 since the start of last year.
If current trends continue, there could be 30,000 deaths at sea this year and Italy will have to process 200,000 migrants landing on its soil, according to projections by aid groups.
Italian officials believe there could be up to one million refugees from Syria, Eritrea and sub-Saharan Africa already in Libya hoping to board boats.