Exclusive: EU frets naval mission off Libya could draw more migrants to sea

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 20, 2015 2:48 AM

By Francesco Guarascio and Adrian Croft

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The EU is considering sending warships to the Libyan coast to combat oil and arms smugglers but fears that could encourage more migrants to take to sea in hopes of being rescued and taken to Europe, according to an EU document seen by Reuters.

In a frank reference to EU fears that saving more lives could mean trafficking gangs put more people to sea in unsafe craft, the paper drawn up before Sunday's mass drowning, warned of a "pull-factor risk" from a naval mission -- a risk more migrants would head for Europe.

A European Commission spokeswoman declined comment. EU diplomats said any such mission was unlikely in the near future.

The naval mission is one of several options suggested by EU officials working for foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in the confidential paper on ways the 28-nation bloc could support a proposed national unity government if U.N.-brokered talks between Libya's warring groups succeed.

The options are due to be discussed by EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday that will now be dominated by the latest migration disaster in the Mediterranean after a boat capsized off the Libyan coast, killing up to 700 migrants.

Another option suggested in the paper is that EU soldiers could secure oil installations in Libya to let international oil firms resume operations. Preventing Libyan factions shipping in arms funded by outward shipments of oil from installations under the control of militias is a priority for international powers.

European diplomats said neither military option had much support from EU states, though Mogherini's former colleagues in the Rome government were pushing for more collective action to stabilize Italy's former colony and to stem the flow of refugees and African economic migrants landing on its own shores.

The EU, accused by rights groups of inaction over the migration crisis, is pinning its hopes on U.N. attempts to broker a political agreement between Libya's two rival governments, trusting this will ease pressure behind migration.

Mogherini has suggested that the EU could send soldiers or civilian experts to monitor a ceasefire or to provide security if an agreement can be reached on a national unity government.

Many EU governments have deep reservations however about sending European soldiers into an unstable and risky situation.

One option proposed in the EU document seen by Reuters is for a naval operation to prevent arms-smuggling and to monitor Islamic State activity in Libya. Such a mission could also check oil tankers going to and from Libyan refineries, it said.

The paper said however that careful consideration would have to be given to "the operation's response to the inevitable presence of migration at sea and the 'pull-factor' risk".

U.N. sanctions monitors said in February Libyan authorities needed an international maritime force to halt the illicit trade in oil or the flow of weapons.

An EU security operation would focus on Tripoli, where a secure zone could be created for the government, the paper says, then adds: "But it could also include installations in the oil crescent to allow international companies to restart their activities."

Oil production is less than half it was in Libya before Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in 2011 following a rebellion backed by NATO forces. Fighting in December reached the eastern "oil crescent", home to the biggest export terminals, Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, forcing their closure. A withdrawal of Tripoli-allied forces has raised hopes the ports could re-open soon.

The paper also suggested the EU could help monitor local ceasefires and that it would quickly organize an international conference to raise funds for a government of national unity.

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Sophie Walker)