The European Union on Monday launched a naval operation aimed at halting people smugglers in Libya who so far this year have sent about 60,000 migrants sailing across the Mediterranean Sea, headed for Italy on flimsy boats.
Six naval ships, two submarines, two drones and three surveillance aircraft will make up the fleet, which will be led by an Italian aircraft carrier, the Cavour, and will run for 12 months.
Fourteen European nations including Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Britain are backing the operation, which was conceived after approximately 800 migrants drowned when their wooden vessel capsized in April.
Although EU officials have discussed landing commandos in lawless Libya to tackle traffickers and destroy boats, the political-economic union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said Monday that collecting intelligence would be the first task of the mission.
The initial phase, which is set to get underway in the coming days, “covers information-gathering and patrolling on the high seas to support the detection and monitoring of smuggling networks," she said.
Any incursions into Libyan waters would require a U.N. Security Council resolution, which has been held up by a lack of approval from Libyan authorities.
The North African country has descended into chaos since the 2011 ouster and death of its ruler, Col. Moammar Kadafi, and now hosts two rival governments, one in Tobruk and one in Tripoli.
Even if raids go ahead, it is not clear how the EU will be able to identify migrant boats before they are put to use by traffickers.
But Mogherini said care would be taken not to harm migrants.
“The target, let me be very clear, are not the migrants. The targets are those who are making money on their lives and too often on their deaths,” she said. “It is part of our efforts to save lives.”
While sailings from Libya to Italy continue, 55,000 migrants, often Syrians escaping their civil war, have sailed to Greece this year after crossing into Turkey, with many wading up beaches amid tourists on Greek islands.
Most migrants arriving in Italy and Greece typically plan to head north and claim asylum in wealthier countries such as Germany and Sweden.
Other countries, including France, have recently begun to turn back migrants at their borders as voter resentment of the growing number of arrivals increases.
Hungary is planning a 13-foot-high fence on its border with Serbia in an effort to stop migrants passing through.
Kington is a special correspondent.