April 19, 2015 / 4:13 PM / 3 years ago

Exclusive: EU frets naval mission off Libya could draw more migrants to sea

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The EU is considering sending warships to the Libyan coast to combat oil and arms smugglers but fears that could encourage more migrants to take to sea in the hope of being rescued and taken to Europe, according to an EU document seen by Reuters.

Migrants are helped as they disembark from a Coast Guard boat in the Sicilian harbour of Palermo April 18, 2015. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

In a frank reference to EU concerns that saving more lives could mean trafficking gangs dispatch more people in unsafe craft, the paper drawn up before Sunday’s mass drowning, warned of a “pull-factor risk” from a naval mission -- the risk more migrants would head for Europe.

The naval mission is one of several options suggested by EU officials working for foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in the confidential paper on ways the 28-nation bloc could support a proposed national unity government if U.N.-brokered talks between Libya’s warring groups succeed.

The options are due to be discussed by EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday that will now be dominated by the latest migration disaster in the Mediterranean after a boat capsized off the Libyan coast, killing up to 700 migrants.

A spokeswoman confirmed Mogherini was planning to present proposals to member states on how the EU may help a Libyan unity government -- “if and when” one is set up -- and that these included a possible use of EU military resources. EU diplomats said any such military mission was unlikely in the near future.

Another option suggested in the paper is that EU soldiers could secure oil installations in Libya to let international oil firms resume operations. Preventing Libyan factions obtaining arms funded by oil shipments from installations under the control of militias is a priority for international powers.

European diplomats said neither military option had much support from EU states, though Mogherini’s former colleagues in the Rome government were pushing for more collective action to stabilize Italy’s former colony and to stem the flow of refugees landing on its own shores.

EUROPEAN RESERVATIONS

The EU, accused by rights groups of inaction over the migration crisis, is pinning its hopes on U.N. attempts to broker a political agreement between Libya’s two rival governments, trusting this will ease pressure behind migration.

Mogherini has suggested that the EU could send soldiers or civilian experts to monitor a ceasefire or to provide security if an agreement can be reached on a unity government.

Many EU governments have deep reservations however about sending European soldiers into an unstable and risky situation.

One option proposed in the EU document seen by Reuters is for a naval operation to prevent arms-smuggling and to monitor Islamic State activity in Libya. Such a mission could also check oil tankers going to and from Libyan refineries, it said.

The paper said however that careful consideration would have to be given to “the operation’s response to the inevitable presence of migration at sea and the ‘pull-factor’ risk”.

U.N. sanctions monitors said in February Libyan authorities needed an international maritime force to halt the illicit trade in oil or the flow of weapons.

An EU security operation would focus on Tripoli, where a secure zone could be created for the government, the paper says, then adds: “But it could also include installations in the oil crescent to allow international companies to restart their activities.”

Oil production is less than half it was in Libya before Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in 2011 following a rebellion backed by NATO forces. Fighting in December reached the eastern “oil crescent”, home to the biggest export terminals, Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, forcing their closure. A withdrawal of Tripoli-allied forces has raised hopes the ports could re-open soon.

The paper also suggested the EU could help monitor local ceasefires and that it would quickly organize an international conference to raise funds for a government of national unity.

Additional reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Alastair Macdonald, Sophie Walker and Crispian Balmer

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