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EU backs naval plan on migrants

Published 18/05/2015

Lord West said destroying boats could save lives
Lord West said destroying boats could save lives

European Union members have agreed to draw up a joint naval force action plan to tackle the Mediterranean refugee crisis.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the UK would send specialist staff to help develop the details of a mission to disrupt the criminal networks behind the flow of migrants heading to Europe via Libya.

The EU is to seek a UN Security Council resolution - being drafted by Britain - to back the use of military force against traffickers' vessels after around 1,800 migrants died attempting the perilous crossing from North Africa so far this year alone.

Mr Fallon said the plan - which EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini hopes to have in place by next month - remained at a very early stage.

Speaking after the Brussels summit - also attended by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond - he said: "We have made some progress today to a more comprehensive plan that will tackle the problem at source, disrupt the trafficker routes and get after the criminals who are involved in this activity.

"We have the Royal Navy already off the Libyan coast, helping in search and rescue. We have said we are prepared to help with the details of this new mission. We are seconding some planning staff to think through the details of how it will work.

"Any destruction of boats will require some legal authority and that has to come from the United Nations but we are not at that stage yet. We are only at the very beginning of planning this particular mission and getting towards a longer-term solution which involves disrupting the trafficking roots and breaking the criminal networks and getting out of the gangs who are making a lot of money out of this misery

"Clearly this is a mission which is going to take some time now because there are people on the move who have paid money in West Africa and in East Africa towards these gangs in the hope of getting across Africa and across the mediterranean. We need to cut off those roots at source and deprive the criminal gangs of their revenue."

Ms Mogherini said it was an "absolute record" for member states to reach agreement on an EU-wide initiative and suggested it reflected a "strong political will and the will to work together".

It is expected to be based in Rome under the command of an Italian admiral and centre on coordinating intelligence on the people smugglers, inspection of boats and the destruction of vessels expected to be used for trafficking.

Downing Street said the Government was working to ensure that "appropriate intelligence resources" are available for the operation.

Asked about reports that Britain may provide drones and intelligence support, as well as helping create a military headquarters near Rome to lead operations against people-smugglers, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "It is right to say that we are working with others on how the appropriate intelligence resources are in place.

"It is right that what is being discussed in Brussels today in terms of the Common Security and Defence Policy mission also envisages an operational centre just outside Rome.

"Does the UK, alongside a search and rescue operation which HMS Bulwark is operating at the moment, have capacities in terms of intelligence collection and the like? Absolutely, as do others, and we will work with them on it."

Former navy chief Admiral Lord West has warned that action to stop the people traffickers' boats could succeed but might not solve the problem because they would find other routes to Europe.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It would be difficult but it's certainly achievable and I believe that a close blockade of the Libyan coast in these territorial seas is feasible and not too high risk and I think we could stop then the flow of people trying to get out into the Mediterranean. That will save lives and it will dry up the funding to these dreadful people-smugglers.

"And I think within a matter of weeks they would be looking for other ways of achieving it, which of course they will always try and do that."

The peer said a UN resolution should be Britain's aim, and he discussed the possibility of disabling boats while they were at sea before sending the migrants back to shore.

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