BRUSSELS - The European Commission said on Wednesday it would launch an EU version of Italy's sea rescue operation to help it deal with the droves of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in crowded boats from North Africa, something Italy has repeatedly called for.
Europe's border control agency Frontex will take over the new operation, dubbed "Frontex Plus", by merging two existing ones and eventually it will replace Italy's costly mission to patrol the seas for boat migrants.
"The aim is to put in place an enlarged Frontex Plus to complement what Italy has been doing," said Cecilia Malmstrom, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, on Wednesday.
The civil war in Syria and breakdown of order in Libya have pushed the number of sea-borne arrivals in Italy to a record of more than 100,000 this year, straining the resources of its navy and coast guard.
Italy's navy has been patrolling the waters between Africa and Sicily since October, when 366 people drowned after their boat capsized just a mile from the Italian island of Lampedusa.
That prompted the launch of the "Mare Nostrum" or "Our Sea" search and rescue mission which has been costing Italy nine million euros ($12 million) a month.
But Italy has repeatedly called for Frontex to take over Mare Nostrum and for other member states to share the burden.
Malmstrom has previously said that Frontex is too small to replace Mare Nostrum, while calls on member states have largely fallen on deaf ears partly because of rising anti-immigrant sentiment in countries such as Britain and France.
Frontex Plus will be more limited in scope than Mare Nostrum, Malmstrom said, and its success would depend on additional contributions from member states given Frontex's limited resources.
"Member states will provide assets, planes, ships in order to guard European borders as best as we can," said Angelino Alfano, Italy's Interior Minister.
The exact details of the new mission will be worked out in the coming days with the aim of launching Frontex Plus in November, after which the Italian government will decide on how best to phase out Mare Nostrum, Alfano added.
The boats used to ferry migrants from Africa will also be destroyed on land to prevent them being re-used.
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