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David Cameron defends Libya stance after Jeremy Corbyn 'mission creep' warning

Published 27/05/2016

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David Cameron has insisted it is in Britain's interest to support the new national unity government in Libya as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he was worried about "mission creep".

The Prime Minister confirmed the Royal Navy is preparing to deploy another warship to the region and send a training team to the North African state.

Speaking at the end of the G7 summit in Japan, the Prime Minister said the ship would be sent to the Mediterranean to help tackle people-smuggling and the illicit movement of arms once the necessary UN Security Council resolution had been agreed.

The training team will be sent to the north African state under plans being drawn up by the European Union to strengthen the Libyan coastguard, he said.

However he flatly refused to comment on reports that UK special forces were already engaged in fighting Islamic State - also referred to as Daesh - in Libya, amid concern from Mr Corbyn and some MPs that Britain is being sucked into a new conflict.

"That country, because of the state that it is in, is a danger to all of us - danger in terms of the migration flows that are going through Libya, a danger because of the people-smuggling gangs that are active in Libya, and a danger because there are real signs that Daesh is gaining a foothold in Libya," he said.

"So clearly we have an interest in doing what we can to support the new government, to help it to grow, to help it have the ability to control that country."

Mr Corbyn, speaking on a campaign visit in Doncaster, said: " I hope that the Royal Naval vessels will see also one of their very important duties as the saving of lives of desperate people fleeing across the Mediterranean. And certainly the work that was done by HMS Bulwark and HMS Enterprise before in saving lives was fantastic.

"I'm worried about mission creep into Libya of course."

Foreign Affairs Select Committee chairman Crispin Blunt said: "The United Kingdom needs to be involved in all the international efforts to try and bring stability to the very complex Libyan situation and this naval deployment would be one element of that."

Alongside that was the military training effort, special forces and the possibility of a police support mission, he said.

"There should be proper contemplation of air strikes on Islamic State targets to make sure that Islamic State, the enemy of all of us and both sides in the Libyan conflict, are destroyed," Tory MP Mr Blunt told BBC Radio 4's World at One.

The UK has this week deployed four military planners to the Rome HQ of the European Union's Operation Sophia mission to tackle people-trafficking in the central Mediterranean.

The newly-established Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli has already requested support from the UK in improving coastguard maritime operations, and it is thought this may soon be followed by a request for international ships to operate in Libyan waters.

If this request is received, the UK will seek the extension of Sophia's mandate, as well as a Security Council resolution at the United Nations, enabling its forces to assist in the interception of arms shipments.

Downing Street spokesmen were unable to say what type of Royal Navy ship would be sent to join four UK vessels already involved in the EU mission, and they declined to discuss what evidence they have for illicit arms movements from the Libyan coast, including the type and quantity of weapons thought to be involved.

Reports have suggested that arms left over from the military forces of ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi have been finding their way into Europe, while Islamic State militants in the extremist group's Libyan stronghold of Sirte have been bolstered by deliveries of weapons from overseas.

Mr Cameron first floated the idea of extending Operation Sophia into Libyan territorial waters at a Brussels summit of the EU in March, warning that numbers of migrants attempting to cross via the central Mediterranean could be expected to swell once the alternative route through Turkey, Greece and the western Balkans had been closed.

Around 150,000 migrants arrived in Italy by boat in 2015, having made the perilous journey from Libya. So far this year, more than 37,000 people have been intercepted in the Mediterranean and taken to Italian ports and hundreds are believed to have died after their overloaded vessels sank or capsized.

There is evidence that some smugglers have taken advantage of the fact that Operation Sophia can carry out its activities only in international waters, by sending migrants out in boats with only enough fuel to get them away from the Libyan coast, after which they are left to drift until picked up by EU ships.

Mr Cameron believes that operating in Libyan waters would allow the warships to join the north African country's coastguard in identifying and intercepting boats close to the shore and forcing them to return.

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