EU naval mission 'neutralises' nearly 300 people smuggler boats


Brussels (AFP)

An EU naval mission has "neutralised" nearly 300 boats used by smugglers to bring migrants to Europe over the Mediterranean in the last year, officials said.

The mission dubbed "Operation Sophia," which is also preparing to train the Libyan coast guard, is a key part of the European Union's effort to "disrupt" the business model of the smugglers.

"Operation Sophia has neutralised (destroyed or rendered useless) 290 vessels on the high seas since October 2015 when the operation entered phase two," an EU official told AFP in an emailed statement.

Phase two calls for EU naval forces operating in international waters to board, search, seize and divert rubber dinghies, wooden boats and fishing vessels used by the smugglers.

The official, who did not want to be identified by name, said the migrants on the seized vessels were all transferred to the nearest safe ports and will be considered for asylum as refugees.

The official said a total of 87 smugglers were apprehended during the boat seizures and transferred to the Italian authorities.

The EU launched Operation Sophia last year after hundreds of migrants died when their rickety boats sank off southern Italy, sparking popular outrage at their plight.

This Central Mediterranean route has seen more migrants risk their lives in recent months after the EU reached an accord with Turkey in March to halt an influx of more than a million refugees who crossed the Aegean to reach Europe last year.

Operation Sophia currently comprises five vessels and three helicopters charged with intercepting smugglers' boats and destroying them, in international waters.

The operation is gearing up to train officers from the Libyan Coast Guards and Navy in coordination with other agencies from the EU and other countries.

"Vetting procedures have been defined and trainees are in the process of being selected by the Libyan authorities," the official told AFP.