BRUSSELS — The European Union has launched a naval operation against people-smugglers in the Mediterranean as part of the ongoing international effort to tackle the flow of migrants from Africa.
EU foreign ministers agreed to the new defense force at a ministerial meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.
Federica Mogherini, foreign policy chief for the bloc, said the aim of the mission would be to "identify, capture and destroy vessels" before they are used by human traffickers to bring migrants across the Mediterranean Sea.
The move comes largely in response to the hundreds of migrants who have died in recent weeks trying to reach Europe.
An EU source said the first phase of the operation will focus on surveillance and assessment of the criminal networks behind the boats attempting to make the dangerous crossing.
The second phase will allow for the search and seizure of suspicious vessels, while the third phase would permit the "disposal of vessels and related assets, preferably before use" and to "apprehend traffickers and smugglers."
An EU official said member states want to try to "disrupt trafficking networks, bring the perpetrators to justice and seize their assets."
"We are determined to destroy their business model," said the official.
Part of the latest EU response is to focus on preventing migrants from trying to make the crossing in the first place.
The official said a resolution from the United Nations Security Council will be needed before the later stages of the CSDP (common security and defense operation) mission agreed on Monday can begin.
It will not be a "fully fledged military operation" said the official, but one based on "targeted actions, which have very clear and limited objectives."
After the meeting, Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said, "With this operation, we are targeting the business model of those who benefit from the misery of migrants. But it's only a part of a broader strategy including the cooperation with our partners in Africa, particularly in the Sahel region, and the work with the International Organisation for Migration and the UNHCR.
"As EU, we are determined to contribute to save lives, dismantle the networks of the smugglers of human beings and address the root causes of migration," added the Italian official.
Her comments are echoed by British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond, who said the mission will be a "phased operation and of course we need United Nations Security Council resolutions to commence later phases of the operation but the early phases will begin immediately."
Hundreds of migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean this year, amid a surge in overcrowded boats heading for Europe from Libya.
The flow of desperate migrants from North Africa hoping to reach Europe is already much higher than in the same period last year.
Italy and Greece are on the front lines and have urged their EU partners to do more to help. By early June, more than 100,000 migrants had reached southern Europe by boat.
Of that total, 54,000 arrived in Italy and 48,000 in Greece. Another 920 reached Spain and 91 Malta.
One of the biggest surges happened on June 6-7, when nearly 6,000 people were plucked from the sea and taken to southern Italy, in a major international operation.