Italy Plans Naval Mission Off Libya to Stop Migrant Boats

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ROME — Italy’s prime minister convened top cabinet ministers on Thursday to discuss a plan to send Italian warships into Libyan territorial waters to combat smugglers who have sent thousands of migrants to Italian shores.

The step came a day after Italy struck a long-elusive deal with Libyan authorities to give it a freer hand along the African coast, and it reflected Italy’s rising frustration with what it sees as having to deal with Europe’s migrant crisis on its own.

This year alone, nearly 100,000 migrants from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East have arrived in Italy, a 7 percent spike compared to the same period last year. More than 2,000 migrants have died at sea this year as they risked the crossing.

On Wednesday, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni announced a potentially important breakthrough in Italy’s seemingly Sisyphean task of stopping migrants from setting sail for Sicily.

After meeting with Fayez Serraj, who leads Libya’s United Nations-backed government, in Rome’s Chigi Palace, Mr. Gentiloni announced that the Libyans had requested Italy’s help to stop the traffickers who have for years been operating brazenly in its territorial waters.

“It is very relevant news in the fight against human trafficking in Libya, if we respond positively,” Mr. Gentiloni said after the meeting. “I believe this is necessary.”

But the potential hurdles confronting such a strategy are manifold. Not least it requires the approval of parliament, which is scheduled to begin debating the potential deployment next Tuesday.

Once parliament gives consent, which is expected, the defense ministry says that it can quickly begin a mission and expects three to six ships, but also helicopters, fighter jets and drones, to be in action by mid-August.

In the meantime, Italian government officials said they were trying to untangle thorny issues related to the rules of engagement.

Those included what Italian warships would do if they encountered hostile human traffickers in foreign waters; whether they can stop arms and oil smugglers as well as human traffickers; and whether the migrants they might have to rescue should be returned to Libya, where they could face a horrific security situation.

The political impact could also be significant. Domestically, the waves of migrants have become a conservative talking point against the center-left government, which has found itself increasingly on the defensive as elections approach.

The crisis has stoked tensions between Italy and its European Union partners, who have mostly been unwilling to share the burden of migrants flowing into Italy, even as many of the migrants seek destinations farther north among Europe’s richer countries.

Since 2015, the government in Tripoli has denied the European Union’s antismuggling mission, called Sophia, from entering its waters. Italian efforts to train the Libyan Coast Guard have proved mostly ineffective.

Instead, Libya has emerged as a key point of departure for hundreds of thousands of migrants, as human traffickers capitalize on the power vacuum created by the overthrow and killing of Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011.

Aid groups operating ships have rescued a significant percentage of the migrants in grave risk of drowning at sea. Some anti-immigrant parties have accused the aid groups of encouraging, or even colluding with, human traffickers.

That suspicion, and a far-right-wing ideology to protect European countries from Muslim and a nonwhite “invasion,” prompted a group of far-right activists operating under the name Defend Europe to charter a ship to monitor and disrupt aid group activity to prevent asylum seekers from reaching Europe.

The “identitarians,” as they call themselves, planned to board the ship this month in Sicily and sail toward Libyan waters. But the ship got stuck for days in Egypt.

On Wednesday, it arrived in Northern Cyprus, where its captain and first mate were reportedly arrested themselves for people-smuggling and forging documents after about 20 South Asians were found on board.

About five of the South Asian crew asked for asylum. A spokesman for Defend Europe blamed the asylum requests on bribes from aid groups.