ROME • A military operation to catch migrant traffickers has kicked off, with European warships patrolling international waters in the Mediterranean to arrest smugglers dubbed the "mafia of the sea".
Operation Sophia, named after a baby born on a European Union ship which rescued her mother off the coast of Libya in August, will allow naval craft to board, search, seize and divert vessels suspected of being used for human trafficking.
Operation Sophia is the second phase of the EU Navfor Med operation. The first phase was launched in June, and focused on compiling and analysing information on the trafficker networks.
Six ships - an Italian aircraft carrier, a French frigate plus one British, one Spanish and two German ships - are in place in international waters off Libya, the departure point for many of the migrant boats.
At least three other vessels supplied by the Belgian, British and Slovenian navies are expected to arrive in the area at the end of October to complete the force, which also includes four aircraft and 1,318 personnel.
On board the Werra, one of the German ships taking part, the 100-person strong crew has already carried out several exercises, including a simulation of an attack carried out by traffickers, to which they responded by opening fire.
For this mission, the team includes sailors trained in boarding ships on the high seas, the Werra's captain Stefan Klatt said.
Still, the operation is a drop in the ocean against the huge scale of a problem that has seen 630,000 migrants illegally enter the European Union this year as people flee conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
So far this year, more than 130,000 migrants and refugees have crossed into Europe from the north African coast. More than 2,700 have drowned.
Turkey has become the main launching point for migrants trying to enter Europe. Many cross overland into Turkey, before a short journey by sea to EU member Greece and onwards to central and northern European countries, with Germany the preferred destination.
As the warships have to stick to international waters, meaning they will have to stay 12 nautical miles away from the Libyan coast, the effectiveness of the operation remains to be seen.
The EU gave the go-ahead for the operation in international waters in September, but its ships are not, for now, allowed to pursue traffickers into Libyan waters.
"We follow the traffickers and want to arrest them and seize their ships," the captain said, adding that he would get as close to Libyan waters as he can.
Over the past few weeks, EU Navfor Med has identified 20 "escort" boats - the type used by traffickers who take the migrants out to sea in fishing boats and dinghies before leaving them and returning to Libya in the escort boat.
It could have taken action against all of the 17 Libyan and three Egyptian escort boats spotted, had phase two of the operation already been up and running.
On the map, the operation will patrol more than 10 areas off the Libyan coast: four along the 12-nautical mile mark which separates international from Libyan waters, and the others farther out to sea.
The whole of the north-western coast of Libya from the Tunisian border to Sirte will be on lockdown, apart from an area directly in front of Tripoli, left open to prevent a total maritime blockade.
Traffickers hoping to spirit migrants out of the area by boat will still run into the EU operation once they get into international waters.
But authorisation to venture into Libyan waters from the United Nations Security Council and Libya appears to be still some way off.
It will not stop the Werra and others getting as close as they can, particularly by night, to collect information, survey the area and listen to marine traffic and radio frequencies used by smugglers.
For all its detailed preparations ahead of the launch, "we clearly lack men close to the network" of traffickers to help break it, one official said on condition of anonymity.