EU naval mission launches patrols off Libya

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The European Union’s Mediterranean naval mission to enforce a UN weapons embargo on Libya is to begin amid reports that private intelligence companies are monitoring Turkish maritime movements in the area.

The EU’s Operation Irini became active at the end of March but after fraught negotiations over assets and with European nations distracted by the coronavirus outbreak the first patrols are scheduled to be launched on Wednesday and Thursday.

The lethargic pace at which the EU has launched Irini has, according to reports, led to France contracting private intelligence firms to monitor Turkish shipping bringing weapons into Libya over the Mediterranean.

The conflict in Libya has escalated with forces loyal to the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli making gains against Libyan National Army (LNA) forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hafter.

“At this stage there are three naval assets and three planes,” said EU spokesman for foreign affairs Peter Stano. “Three more boats and three more planes [will operate] in supporting roles.”

Fighters with Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) gather at a position near the town of Garabulli, some 70 kms east of the capital Tripoli AFP
Fighters with Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) gather at a position near the town of Garabulli, some 70 kms east of the capital Tripoli AFP

The bloc’s member states began pledging personnel and assets to the mission last week. Germany has agreed to contribute 300 troops to the mission as well as a P-3C Orion reconnaissance aircraft with crew but no naval vessel.

Germany had contributed a navy frigate to Operation Sophia, the forerunner to Operation Irini, a European migrant search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean.

According to reports in the Italian press, the Rome-based operation is led by senior Italian, French and Greek naval officers. The same countries have reportedly provided the initial three permanent vessels for the mission.

The operation appears to have got off to a faltering start with some of the mission’s assets still not pledged by EU nations. Mr Stano said new offers for troops and resources could be made next month.

“At this stage the majority of states made pledges. There are not 100 per cent of personnel and assets in place but this will be the subject of the next conference which starts next month,” he said.

The EU agreed Operation Irini in February to implement Libya’s much-flouted 2011 weapons embargo. Upholding the arms embargo was a key pledge at January 2020 international conference on Libya in Berlin

Irini will include aerial and satellite surveillance and inspections of vessels suspected of carrying arms.

It will also gather information on illicit oil exports from Libya and the extensive human smuggling networks operating in the North African nation.

Weapons and troops have continued to arrive in Libya despite the 2011 embargo agreed by world powers including Turkey and Russia, key players in the country.

Authorities in northern Italy arrested the captain of a Lebanese-flagged cargo ship on suspicion of international arms trafficking to Libya in February.

European High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell, holds a virtual news conference on the approval of Operation Irini, at the European Commission in Brussels AFP
European High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell, holds a virtual news conference on the approval of Operation Irini, at the European Commission in Brussels AFP

The Lebanese crew of the cargo ship, the Bana, who blew the whistle in Italy, alleged tanks and other military vehicles were loaded on board at a Turkish port and then transported to Tripoli.

Africa Intelligence reported France has used the French firm CAE Aviation to monitor Turkish vessels suspected of supplying arms to Libya, pre-empting the launch of Europe's Irini mission.

The French Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond for comment.

The head of the GNA in Tripoli, Fayez Al Sarraj, in April rejected Operation Irini saying the EU mission gives an advantage to Mr Haftar’s LNA by blocking supplies of Turkish resources.

Mr Stano, said the operation was aimed at creating a lasting ceasefire in Libya. “This is our contribution to the ceasefire,” he said. “If we manage to undercut the flow of weapons to Libya it might be easier for both parties to realise, if there are not supplies coming in, then it is better to talk and find a political settlement.”

In Europe, diplomatic discussion on the future of Libya have continued. German Foreign Office minister Niels Annen on Monday held discussions with the UK’s Middle East minister James Cleverly on the next steps for the country.

The UK, which has now left the EU but played a pivotal role in creating support for the 2011 Nato intervention in Libya, said in a statement that it was committed to a political solution in the country.

“We continue to urge Libyan parties to cease fighting and engage in constructive dialogue. An inclusive political solution – as set out by the Berlin Conference – offers the best hope for the stability and future prosperity that the Libyan people need and deserve,” a spokeswoman said.

Updated: May 6, 2020 06:28 PM

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