BRUSSELS — The European Union announced Tuesday the launch of a new naval mission in the Mediterranean Sea aimed at enforcing the United Nations arms embargo on Libya, after Italy blocked a previous operation claiming that the warships attracted migrants to Europe’s shores.
The new operation, dubbed Irini, the Greek word for “peace,” will start work for a year from Wednesday. The European Council said it will have as “its core task the implementation of the U.N. arms embargo through the use of aerial, satellite and maritime assets.”
“In particular the mission will be able to carry out inspections of vessels on the high seas off the coast of Libya suspected to be carrying arms or related material to and from Libya,” a statement said. It will also gather information about illegal fuel and oil smuggling from Libya and help build up the Libyan Coast Guard, including by training its personnel.
The EU’s previous naval mission, Operation Sophia, was set up after tens of thousands of migrants began attempting potentially perilous crossings of the Mediterranean in 2015 in search of better lives in Europe.
Italy’s previous populist government blocked Sophia from using ships because its vessels were occasionally used to rescue migrants. Planes and drones were still used. The current government was also wary about resuming any operation, and Austria also initially opposed it.
Aid groups were shocked by the seemingly absurd prospect of a naval operation without any boats, accusing the EU of abandoning people seeking refuge.
While it has no migrant-related mission, ships involved in Operation Irini will be obliged to save people they come across in danger at sea, under international law.
“Diplomacy cannot succeed unless it is backed by action. The U.N. arms embargo on Libya needs to be effectively enforced,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters as he unveiled the operation. He said the EU sees Irini has “an important part of the solution to contribute to a permanent cease-fire.”
Borrell said that while the operation will focus mostly on maritime surveillance, its planes, drones and satellites will be able to monitor airspace and some activities on land in, around and over the conflict-torn country.
Fighting in Libya has raged for almost a year between military commander Khalifa Hifter’s forces, which are allied with a rival government based in eastern Libya, and an array of militias in the west loosely linked to the authorities in Tripoli, the capital.
Egypt, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are all involved, supplying troops, fighters and military equipment to the warring factions. France and Italy support opposing sides.
Clashes between rival Libyan forces have escalated in recent days despite appeals for a cease-fire, particularly given fears that the new coronavirus could devastate a country with ravaged infrastructure and dire medical shortages.
Borrell expressed regret that those appeals appear to have fallen on deaf ears, saying that “nobody can afford two wars at the same time."