EU navies get green light to tackle arms smugglers

By Hadi Fornaji.

Massive blast destroys "arms smuggling boat" (social media screen grab)

“Arms smuggling boat” destroyed last year off Benghazi (social media screen grab)

Tripoli, 20 June 2016:

EU naval forces have been given the final clearance to intercept arms smugglers off the Libyan coast in an extension of their  year-long Operation Sophia campaign against people-traffickers.

The European Council meeting today in Brussels merely said afterwards that, beside helping training the Libyan coastguard and navy, it would be “contributing to the implementation of the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya”.

The EU has thus not only extended by another year the EUNAFOR MED Operation Sophia but expanded its mandate. Brussels says that EU ships have already  been responsible for the rescue of at least 16,000 migrants.

There are at least five EU warships already engaged against the people smuggling operation. The EU says that in the last 12 months, it has arrested 71 suspected smugglers and “neutralised”139 vessels.

Those arrested have been transferred to Italy for trial.  They include an Eritrean, alleged to be a key people-trafficker known as “The General”.  The suspect was apprehended in Khartoum last month, extradited to Rome two weeks ago and named as Madhanie Yehdego Mered. However there are claims of mistaken identity. Relatives of a jobless carpenter, Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, say that he is the man who was seized in a coffee shop in the Sudanese capital.

It is being reported that more EU warships are likely to be sent to offshore Libya. Since the main contributors – Britain, France, Germany and Italy – are also members of NATO, it seems certain that there will be close cooperation against the arms smugglers.

After its decision today, which followed  last week’s approval by the UN Security Council, the European Council explained that interdicting the supply of illegal weapons would produce a more secure and stable Libya. This in turn would help the country disrupt  human trafficking and smuggling networks.

The EU ships now have the power to stop and inspect any suspect vessel but only on the high seas. Brussels made a point of saying that no naval vessels would operate inside Libyan territorial waters, unless authorised by the Government of National Accord.  This is a moot point. EU vessels from the Sophia operation, which is run from Rome by Italian Rear Admiral Credendino, are understood to have frequently been rescuing migrants in craft that were stranded well within Libya waters. No protests have come from Tripoli.

The coastal movement of men and weaponry from Misrata or Sirte to Benghazi has established supply lines that have only rarely been attacked successfully, principally by aircraft from east. The April destruction of two vessels  beside the docks of the Libyan Iron and Steel Company ( LISCO) has never been satisfactorily explained.  They were alleged to have been running weapons and fighters to the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shoura Council and to have been sunk by limpet mines.

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