UNITED NATIONS - In a bid to bolster the Libyan government and stop the spread of weapons into the hands of terrorists and militias there, the U.N. Security Council adopted a measure Tuesday authorizing a European Union naval force to stop and search ships, and seize illegal arms headed to or from Libya.
The measure would expand the work of the EU-run Operation Sophia, which for the past year has been trying to disrupt migrant smuggling from Libya in the Mediterranean.
"This text marks a turning point, a potential game changer for Libya, because it addresses an urgent need in terms of security," said French Ambassador François Delattre, who co-sponsored the draft. "We all know the violations of the arms embargo only serve to feed the instability of this country and benefit Daesh, our common enemy, and other terrorist groups," he added, using an Arabic acronym for the self-styled Islamic State.
The measure, adopted unanimously, authorizes the naval force to search suspected ships on the high seas off the coast of Libya. If arms and other related materials are found in violation of an international arms embargo, the EU may seize and dispose of the weapons and divert those ships and their crews to an appropriate port.
"The existing arms embargo has not fully stopped the flow of weapons," said British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft, whose delegation drafted the resolution. "Illicit weapons are undermining the peace and security of the region."
Last week, the U.N.'s top diplomat in Libya, Martin Kobler, appealed for stronger enforcement of the arms embargo, saying the country is "awash with weapons — 20 million pieces of weaponry in a land of 6 million people." He said they do not "fall from the sky, but come in increasingly through illegal shipments by sea and by land," fueling the conflict.
Under the resolution, the Libyan government can request exemptions to the embargo in order to arm and equip its own security forces. The Libyans had been asking for this amendment for some time.
Libya has been struggling to get its government of national accord off the ground and to fight militias and terrorist groups, including Islamic State, which are trying to seize and hold part of the oil-rich country's territory.
Last week, the U.N.'s political chief, Jeffrey Feltman, warned that the threat posed by Islamic State and its associates in Libya "remains high" and that the group has not been "strategically or irreversibly weakened."
The United Nations estimates that there are between 3,000 and 5,000 foreign terrorist fighters working for Islamic State in Libya. As the group's territory diminishes in Iraq and Syria, it is seeking to take advantage of the political and security vacuum in Libya to establish an alternative stronghold there.
It has targeted the coastline east of Sirte and has cells in Darnah, Ajdabiya and Benghazi. The U.N. says the capital, Tripoli, also continues to be home to IS cells. The group also has a small presence in southern Libya.