EU to back 'boat-destroyer' mission in Mediterranean

EU foreign and defence ministers are expected to approve a mission to destroy the boats used by people-smugglers operating in war-torn Libya.

At a meeting in Brussels, the ministers will also discuss the mission's command-and-control structure and HQ.

It is part of the EU's response to the vast numbers of illegal migrants from Africa and the Middle East crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.

More than 1,800 migrants have died in the Mediterranean in 2015.

That is a 20-fold increase on the same period in 2014.

Speaking on arrival, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said "today the main point will be taking the decision to establish the operation, the EU operation at sea to dismantle the criminal networks that are smuggling people in the Mediterranean".

"We are looking for partnership with the Libyan authorities, with all the relevant Libyan authorities," she said.

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Image caption The UN estimates that 60,000 people have tried to cross the Mediterranean this year

The task is complicated by the fact that there is not just one government in Libya.

Disrupting the people-smuggling networks is part of a wider EU plan for tackling the migration crisis. The European Commission has urged EU states to adopt national quotas for housing migrants, to ease the pressure on Italy, Greece and Malta.

The EU also aims to tighten co-operation with migrant transit countries in Africa, to make it easier to send economic migrants home. Too many irregular migrants with no right to asylum manage to stay in Europe, the Commission says.

EU takes on the smugglers - by BBC Europe correspondent Chris Morris

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The EU mission should be formally established on Monday with its headquarters in Italy - but there is no agreed start date yet.

Much will depend on when Britain is able to shepherd a resolution through the UN Security Council, and what precisely the resolution approves.

The mission will begin with intelligence-gathering (which is already taking place) and operations against smugglers on the high seas.

But then comes the most risky part - naval operations within Libyan territorial waters, close to or on the Libyan coastline.

EU officials have said repeatedly that there will be "no boots on the ground".

But there will need to be an effort to disrupt the onshore operations of the smuggling gangs if the mission is to achieve its objectives. That could well involve the use of special forces - something that will not be advertised in advance.

UN diplomacy

Ms Mogherini, who was at the UN last week, said she had seen "no major political resistance or opposition" there to the EU plan, which requires legal backing for military operations in Libyan waters.

However, Libya's UN ambassador has objected to the plan to enter Libyan waters.

Some 60,000 people have already tried to make the perilous crossing from Libya this year, the UN estimates.

Many are fleeing conflict or poverty in countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia.

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'Desperate conditions'

The EU ministers are expected to fine-tune the 28-member bloc's search-and-destroy operations.

The aim is to disrupt the business model that makes people-smuggling across the Mediterranean such a lucrative trade. But it could mean operating in areas controlled by a potentially hostile Islamist militia.

In practice that would mean the EU taking considerable risks to destroy boats and infrastructure used by smugglers who are swamping Europe with huge numbers of migrants, our correspondent says.

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Image caption The EU's mission off the Horn of Africa is seen as a model for the mission off the Libyan coast

A UK government spokesperson said the UK was "considering how best to support the proposals", but added "the UK has no plans to send combat troops to Libya". Ms Mogherini said last week the mission would not involve "boots on the ground in Libya".

The EU's anti-piracy naval mission off the Somali coast, Operation Atalanta, is regarded as a model for the new Mediterranean mission. And in 2012 EU forces raided pirate bases on land.

Italy has proposed that the Mediterranean mission should be led from Rome by Adm Enrico Credendino, who ran the EU's anti-piracy mission off Somalia.

A UN mandate that allows EU operations on Libya's coast would require a chapter seven UN resolution and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has already cautioned against a military solution.

Rights groups, including Amnesty International, are also warning that military action could leave migrants trapped in Libya in desperate conditions.