Despite Libyan Prime Minister denial, Italy approves sending ships to Libyan waters

The EU hopes to resettle 37,000 people from five African countries [Photo: AFP]
Italy on Friday approved sending Italian naval ships to help the Libyan coast guard combat migrant trafficking following a request by the North African nation, The Associated Press reported.

The measure is part of efforts to stanch the flow of hundreds of thousands of migrants who are smuggled out of Libya across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe each year by traffickers using unseaworthy boats, AP added.

Premier Paolo Gentiloni, who is under increasing pressure to manage their arrivals in Italy after being rescued at sea, said the initiative to help Libya patrol its shores “can give a significant contribution to reinforcing Libyan sovereignty. It is not an operation that we take against Libya sovereignty.”

Details about the operation, including the rules of engagement, were not disclosed following the Cabinet’s approval, but Gentiloni said Italy would “not be sending a huge fleet or air squadrons.” AP said.

Human Rights Watch warned, however, that the Italian action could amount to a naval blockade that “could expose migrants and asylum seekers to even greater abuse.”

“Given the horrible treatment of migrants in Libya, it is difficult to imagine how any European government could disembark anyone there, or hand anyone over to Libyan authorities, while also protecting their rights,” Judith Sunderland, the associate Europe director at HRW, said in a statement, according to AP.

Libya’s UN-backed unity government chief has denied that an agreement has been struck with Rome to deploy Italian vessels in Libyan waters to combat human trafficking.

Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj “denies having asked Italy to send naval vessels into Libya’s territorial waters… or fighter planes into Libyan airspace”, his Government of National Accord (GNA) said in a statement late on Thursday.

“Such allegations… are without any foundation,” Sarraj was quoted as saying in the statement. “Libya’s national sovereignty is a red line that nobody must cross.”

Tripoli and Rome had agreed to “complete its (Italy’s) support programme for (Libya’s) coastguard through training and armament to allow it to save migrants’ lives and to confront the criminal (trafficking) gangs”, Sarraj said.

The GNA chief, whose administration’s control of the lawless country is limited, said he had also asked Rome “to support border guards” in southern Libya, the main entry point for migrants aiming to reach the shores of Europe, and to supply an electronic surveillance system.

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