EU foreign ministers paved the way Monday to expand their bloc's anti-migrant smuggling operation in the Mediterranean Sea, allowing it to take on the additional tasks of training Libya's coastguard and helping to enforce a UN arms embargo.
Final military preparations will now take place, with the expanded operation expected to launch by the end of July. The move comes less than a week after the UN Security Council gave its blessing to EU enforcement of the arms embargo on Libya.
"We have to now act concretely, both against all those who exploit migrants ... and in the fight against the arms smuggling, which benefits Daesh," French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said before talks with his EU counterparts in Luxembourg, referring to the Islamic State extremist group.
The jihadist movement has used a political vacuum in Libya to gain a foothold in the North African country, which has also become a springboard for migrants trying to reach the European Union.
"I cannot imagine that this anarchy in Libya is in anybody's interest, but that rather we must do everything to bring about a stabilization," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said. "Libya is not only important for Europe, Libya is also important for all of Africa."
The EU set up its naval operation, code-named Operation Sophia, last year to patrol international waters off Libya and arrest suspected migrant smugglers. It uses five ships and three aircraft.
The EU says that nearly 16,000 migrants have been saved from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea by Operation Sophia, while 71 suspected smugglers have been arrested and 139 of their vessels neutralized.
Its new training task will kick off with up to 100 senior Libyan coastguard officials who will be trained for 14 weeks on board a vessel in international waters - and possibly later in Libyan waters - said Operation Sophia commander, Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino.
Training of more officials is also foreseen onshore in some EU member states and third countries, including Libya if its authorities request such. In a later phase, the Libyan officials will receive on-the-job training on board their own vessels.
Italy will provide 10 patrol boats that should have been delivered to Libya in 2011, when the country was plunged into turmoil with the toppling of longtime dictator Moamer Gaddafi, EU senior officials said on condition of anonymity.
The EU training will help to "improve the security of the Libyan territorial waters, to improve the Libyan and the navy coastguard's ability to perform search and rescue activities ... and to build closer relations with the Libyan authorities," Credendino said.
The enforcement of the arms embargo, meanwhile, will allow Operation Sophia to inspect and seize suspicious vessels. Details on where weapon-carrying vessels would be brought, how the cargo would be handled and where smugglers would be charged remain to be worked out.
To carry out this task, the EU mission's operational area will expand slightly to the east to intercept weapons trafficking that is believed to be reaching the town of Derna, the EU officials said.