BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union boosted the role of its naval operation in the Mediterranean on Monday after Libya granted permission for the EU to train its coastguard, as increasing numbers of desperate migrants leave the country in unseaworthy boats bound for Italy.
At talks in Brussels, EU foreign ministers agreed to extend the mandate of Operation Sophia by a year and tasked it with building up the size and skills of Libya's coastguard and navy. The operation would also police a U.N. arms embargo off the coast of Libya once a new U.N. Security Council Resolution granting it permission is endorsed.
"We have agreed today to proceed with operational planning so that we can proceed with decisions as fast as possible," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters.
She said the training effort, which would probably begin on EU naval ships in international waters, "will be very important to control Libya's territorial waters, together with our Libyan partners, as well as to control the migrant influx."
The EU has long wanted to move Operation Sophia into Libyan waters, and longer-term on to land, to combat migrant smugglers. But its efforts have been hampered by the failure of the Libyans to quickly agree on a widely recognized national unity government that would approve any such move.
The West is hoping that the new fledgling government will unify Libyans and help combat the Islamic State affiliate there.
Libya descended into chaos after the 2011 death of leader Moammar Gadhafi, with IS-linked militants gaining in strength as two rival governments grappled for control. One, based in Tripoli, was backed by Islamist militias, while another in eastern Libya was internationally recognized.
The coast guard move comes at a time when the Balkan Route for migrants into Europe's heartland has been largely closed and crossings from Libya to Italy, along with inevitable sinkings, are gathering pace again.