The European Union should increase the number of warships patrolling the Mediterranean Sea and start searching and diverting vessels suspected of smuggling migrants, an Italian admiral told EU ambassadors on Thursday.
Many tens of thousands of people have put to sea this year, mainly setting out from Libya and Turkey, in the hope of reaching Europe. At least 2,300 are believed to have died while trying to make the crossing, often in flimsy boats crammed dangerously full by people-traffickers.
An EU military operation, launched in June, has so far focused on gathering intelligence on the smugglers' activities.
On Thursday the head of the mission, Admiral Enrico Credendino, proposed to step up the operations, a close aide to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on Twitter.
"Admiral Credendino proposes to EU ambassadors to pass to phase 2 and act in high seas," Sabrina Bellosi tweeted.
The second phase of the operation would allow EU military officials to search and divert suspect vessels in international waters, but at this stage warships would not venture into Libyan territorial waters, a EU diplomat told Reuters.
To go there, EU vessels would need a go-ahead from the United Nations or from the Libyan authorities, which they cannot get at the moment because Libyan factions are struggling to negotiate the formation of a unity government.
EU defense and foreign ministers will discuss whether to step up military operations at a meeting in Luxembourg next week.
"The green light is not guaranteed," the diplomat said, as the launch of phase 2 would imply the commitment of new vessels, military personnel and financial resources.
The stated objective of the EU military operation is to "disrupt the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Mediterranean," including by destroying the boats used to carry the migrants while still anchored in Libya.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Mark Trevelyan) / Photo credit: Italian Navy via UAS Vision