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US Backs NATO Force Off Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

  • Henry Ridgwell

A NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July, according to the Italian government. There are fears the numbers of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked.

Libyan security forces detained more than 200 migrants from across Africa, and an alleged smuggler, following a raid on a safe house last week in Tripoli.

This type of enforcement is Europe’s long-term hope for stemming the flow of migrants. More than 16,000 people made the crossing from North Africa to Italy in the first three months of 2016, almost double the rate last year.

The United States has offered its backing for a proposed NATO naval operation off Libya. It is not clear, however, what the patrol ships would do with the intercepted migrants, says policy analyst Riccardo Fabiani of the Eurasia Group.

African illegal migrants wait to receive medial assistance after being rescued by coast guards, in Tripoli, Libya, April 11, 2016. More than 100 migrants were rescued by two coastal guards on Monday after their boat started sinking in the sea.

African illegal migrants wait to receive medial assistance after being rescued by coast guards, in Tripoli, Libya, April 11, 2016. More than 100 migrants were rescued by two coastal guards on Monday after their boat started sinking in the sea.

“Some people are talking about flying them back to their respective countries in Africa, but it is clear that the African governments are not enthusiastic about this idea,” said Fabiani. "And obviously sending them back to Libya is not really an option at the moment because the Libyan government does not have the capabilities.”

The West hopes to boost those capabilities by supporting Libya’s unity government, known as the Government of National Accord, which aims to bring together rival administrations in the east and west.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, center, talks with crew members of the NATO German warship FGS Bonn, on patrol in the Aegean Sea, off the Turkish coast, during a visit, April 21, 2016.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, center, talks with crew members of the NATO German warship FGS Bonn, on patrol in the Aegean Sea, off the Turkish coast, during a visit, April 21, 2016.

“They are taking over ministries and taking over departments and taking over government buildings, and there is backing at most levels for it; however, the situation in the east is very different. And that is where I think we are facing a stalemate,” said Fabiani.

The Government of National Accord welcomed British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond to Tripoli last week, giving him a tour of its fledgling naval patrol force at the dockside.

Hammond said British troops could be sent to train Libyan security forces, and refused to rule out strikes against Islamic State militants. Speaking Friday during a visit to London, U.S. President Barack Obama ruled out sending American troops.

“I do not think it would be welcomed by this new government," said Obama. "It would send the wrong signal; this is a matter that Libyans come together on."

Tensions between the rival groups rose Tuesday, after the Tobruk-based eastern administration tried to make its first shipment of oil, reportedly to a company based in the United Arab Emirates, via Malta. Authorities in Tripoli said the shipment was illegal, and Malta has barred the vessel from its waters.

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