LUXEMBOURG - European Union foreign ministers yesterday agreed to launch a naval operation against gangs smuggling migrants to Europe from Libya, although the mission will be limited to intelligence-gathering for now due to lack of a United Nations resolution.
The operation is part of a stepped-up response to a surge of migrants from Africa and the Middle East making the dangerous sea crossing from Libya to Europe. Hundreds have drowned in the Mediterranean.
"Let me be very clear: The targets are not the migrants, the targets are those that are making money on their lives and too often on their deaths. It is part of our effort to save lives," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said.
The operation, as initially envisaged by EU officials, was intended to disrupt the migrant traffickers' business and to capture and destroy their ships, possibly even in Libyan waters.
But the EU would require a UN Security Council resolution and consent from the Libyan authorities to operate in Libyan waters and coastal areas.
Lacking both pre-conditions, the EU will limit its operations for now to sending ships and aircraft to patrol in international waters of the Mediterranean to gather information on the smugglers' activities.
The mission will start "in the coming days", Ms Mogherini said.
The mission, dubbed "EU Navfor Med", will initially deploy five warships, two submarines, three maritime patrol aircraft with drones and helicopters in addition, officials said.
A senior EU official said commanders were aware of the dangers in the operation, noting the presence of the radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in Libya and recent attacks on merchant shipping by the rival factions.
EU officials still hope for Libyan consent and a UN resolution later that would let them tackle the traffickers.
Britain, France, Lithuania and Spain, which all belong to the 15-member Security Council, had been drafting a resolution to approve the EU operation under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows the use of force.
But diplomats said the work was put on hold earlier this month pending Libyan consent to the operation, a major obstacle because two rival governments and parliaments are fighting for control there.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE