British Marines on their way to Mediterranean to tackle Libyan immigrants’ smugglers
A 150-strong task group of Royal Marines has been sent to the Mediterranean in preparation for Britain stepping up operations against Libyan people smugglers sending boatloads of migrants to Europe.
The specialist unit trained in boarding and searching small craft has been moved into position as European nations try to halt the migrant crisis which has seen hundreds of thousands try to cross the Med on flimsy and overcrowded boats.
The Foreign and Defence secretaries will on Monday meet with European counterparts in Luxembourg to discuss escalating the EU’s military anti-smuggling operation in the sea.
Sources said the Royal Marine Special Purpose Task Group (SPTG) was likely to play a key role in the any next phase of Operation Sophia.
EU ministers want to smash trafficking gangs by capturing traffickers as soon as they leave the Libyan shore. Earlier efforts have so far been undermined by warships being unable to enter Libyan territorial waters, but EU leaders are hoping a newly-appointed unity government will give permission for Operation Sophia to approach the coast.
The SPTG formed around Zulu Company of the Arbroath-based 45 Commando Royal Marines, was created in December 2015 for “contingency operations in the Mediterranean” and then sailed from Marchwood Military Port the following month on board RFA Mounts Bay.
So far this year, around 24,000 migrants have arrived in Italy from Libya, where trafficking gangs have exploited the country’s chaos to set up huge smuggling operations catering to people desperate to reach Europe.
Officials expect the Libyan smuggling route to Italy to again become the main route into Europe this summer as deportations from Greece back to Turkey put migrants off travelling via eastern Mediterranean paths.
Matteo de Bellis, a research with Amnesty International, said: “We should expect tens of thousands to attempt to depart this spring and summer bound for Lampedusa. With the closure of the EU-Turkey border to migrants, we may learn once again how closing one route pushes people to another route.”
European defence chiefs are also expected to meet in the coming weeks to pave the way for a possible military intervention to bolster the Libyan government against Islamic State militants.
Senior officers will hold planning talks in Rome to discuss how many troops are likely to be needed to support the new UN-backed government, and train its security forces.
America’s envoy this weekend urged the new unity government in Tripoli to accept international offers of help, suggesting time was short to combat Islamic State militants who have seized swathes of coastline.
Ministers are considering sending as many as 1,000 British troops to join an Italian-led mission training the Libyan Army, as well as a separate mission to tackle trafficking gangs along the country’s coast.
A formal decision on sending troops is waiting for a request for help from the new Government, led by Fayez al-Sarraj.
A Whitehall source said: “We would like there to be progress. We would like it to move forward to reach a resolution.
“We are contingent on a decision from the Libyan Government and what they can square with their people. And the balance for them between having security and having a foreign presence in the country.”
But Jonathan Winer, the US envoy to Libya, appeared to call on the Libyans to hurry. He said the threat from Islamic State militants was “real”. He said the new Libyan Government “must decide how to use international offers to help”.
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