European Union backs unprecedented naval mission to end migrant crisis

Migrants wait to disembark from military ship "Bettica" following a rescue operation at sea on May 5 in the port of Salerno in southern Italy.-- PHOTO: AFP 
Migrants wait to disembark from military ship "Bettica" following a rescue operation at sea on May 5 in the port of Salerno in southern Italy.-- PHOTO: AFP 

BRUSSELS (AFP) - European Union nations approved plans on Monday for an unprecedented naval mission starting next month to fight human traffickers responsible for a flood of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya.

The scheme backed by foreign and defence ministers in Brussels will involve European warships and surveillance aircraft gathering intelligence and then raiding boats to crack down on people smugglers.

But the EU is still waiting for a UN resolution that will allow it to destroy boats that belong to people smugglers in Libyan waters, where political turmoil has created safe harbour for traffickers.

"Decision just taken to establish the EU naval operation to disrupt the business model of smugglers and traffickers networks," EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said on Twitter after a meeting of the bloc's foreign and defence ministers.

The military operation is part of a bigger EU blueprint launched after the Mediterranean experienced its deadliest ever migrant shipwreck in April, which took the death toll this year to 1,800 people alone.

More than 5,000 people have died in the past 18 months while trying to make the dangerous crossing in flimsy dinghies and fishing boats.

Libya's internationally recognised government in Tobruk - which is fighting both a rival administration in Tripoli and the rising threat of Islamic State militants - opposes the naval plan and said Brussels must talk with it first.

"The military option to deal with the boats inside Libyan waters or outside is not considered humane," government spokesman Hatem el-Ouraybi said by telephone.

Mogherini however said operational planning for the EU Navfor Med mission, to be headquartered in Rome and led by an Italian admiral, will now start immediately.

It will be in three phases starting with intelligence gathering, progressing to the boarding of smugglers' boats and finally destroying them, she told a press conference.

The force could be formally launched in June after a summit of European leaders, Mogherini said, adding that she hoped for UN Security Council approval so the EU could "launch the operation in all its phases" including the targeting of boats.

Mogherini confirmed that Brussels was in touch with both Libyan governments.

"We are looking for partnership in this. There is a responsibility that the EU can take but there is a responsibility that Libya also has to take," she said.

NATO head Jens Stoltenberg, also attending the meeting in Brussels, said the US-led military alliance was ready to assist but the EU had not yet asked for help.

He also warned that "terrorists" from Islamic extremist groups could also be making the crossing by "trying to hide, trying to blend in among the migrants." Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain have already promised to deploy warships for the mission, a rare joint EU military venture for a bloc that was formed to promote peace after World War II.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said ministers needed to put together a complete programme, with the current plan "an important first step". He said cooperation with Libya was also key.

The final phase of destroying smugglers' boats in Libyan waters is the most controversial, with the organisation Human Rights Watch describing it as "utter madness".

The rest of the European Commission's migrant plan also remains dogged by divisions.

Suggestions of a quota system to share the migrant burden more evenly among member states, instead of relying on Mediterranean nations to deal with asylum seekers, has had some countries up in arms.

Spain joined Britain and France in rejecting the idea Monday.

Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo said the Commission's call for solidarity had to be "proportionate, just and realistic", adding that it took no account of Spain's high unemployment and the "huge effort we are making to control migration from Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal which impacts the whole EU".

Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia have also opposed the quota system. Britain already has an opt-out but says economic migrants should be pushed back to where they came from.

The EU has also pledged to boost funding for and step up non-military search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean.