EU foreign ministers agreed Monday to expand the bloc's anti-migrant smuggling operation in the Mediterranean Sea, taking on the additional tasks of training Libya's coastguard and helping to enforce a UN arms embargo on the country.
The conflict-ridden North African nation has been a springboard for migrants trying to reach the European Union, with smuggling networks taking advantage of the political turmoil gripping the country since longtime dictator Moamer Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.
Brussels set up a naval operation last year, code-named Operation Sophia, to patrol international waters off the Libyan coast, intercept migrant vessels and arrest suspected smugglers, with a view to disrupting the illicit commerce.
While almost 14,000 migrants have been rescued at sea, the operation lacks authority to enter Libyan territorial waters, where many of the smugglers operate.
Just on Monday, rescue vessels from the Irish and Italian navies and the private aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) were involved in 15 separate rescue operations, Italian authorities said late Monday. The 14 inflatable boats and one wooden vessel in the Mediterranean were bound for Italy with another 2,000 people, who were rescued.
The EU has been waiting for the formation of a unity government in Libya - which occurred last month - in the hope that the Libyan authorities would then formally ask the bloc to expand Operation Sophia.
The request from Libyan Prime Minister Fajez Sarraj for coastguard training arrived just before EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels were to discuss the possible expansion of the operation.
The ministers said in a joint statement that stepped up operations into Libyan waters are needed "to disrupt the business model of human smugglers and trafficking networks and to contribute to broader security in support of the legitimate Libyan authorities."
A further EU decision will be required before the operation can begin any of its new tasks.
"Our presence at sea not only has been useful so far, but could be even more upgraded in the future weeks," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said.
The coastguard training could take place on the high seas, she said.
One ship could suffice to provide the training, a senior EU official said last week on condition of anonymity.
Libya had asked for EU help in training its security services to fight the Islamic State extremist group, but Germany rejected the move, diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
German State Minister Michael Roth had said ahead of the ministers' meeting that the aim was to support the new Libyan government "on its path to stability and new statehood."
A functioning government in Libya is seen as key to fighting the Islamic State movement, which has used the political vacuum to gain a foothold in the country.
France, meanwhile, has been pushing for Operation Sophia to help enforce an arms embargo on Libya. Paris believes that Islamic State militants in the country are being supplied via the Mediterranean Sea.
Ministers agreed Monday that their naval mission should contribute to information sharing and the implementation of "the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya." This will first require a new resolution from the UN Security Council.
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