HANNOVER, Germany – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that she, U.S. President Barack Obama and the leaders of France, Britain and Italy discussed ways of supporting the fragile unity government in Libya and the possibility of expanding military efforts to stop the smuggling of migrants across the Mediterranean.
NATO is already patrolling for smugglers farther east, in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey, and Obama had assured the European leaders the U.S. was "prepared to also take responsibility with regard to the migration route from Libya to Italy if necessary," Merkel said.
She emphasized, however, that the five leaders didn't discuss "concrete proposals" for a NATO mission off Libya during their hour-long meeting in Hannover, and that a European Union mission in the Mediterranean had been "working quite well."
The White House said in a statement that the leaders had urged NATO and the EU "to draw on their experience in the Aegean to explore how they could work together to address in an orderly and humane way migrant flows in the central Mediterranean."
A senior Obama administration official added that the U.S. would be supportive of a NATO mission in the central Mediterranean. But the official added that the U.S. would defer to NATO to announce the details of such a mission if and when it were to occur. The official wasn't authorized to discuss internal deliberations publicly and requested anonymity.
With the flow of people across the eastern Mediterranean slowing sharply due to the NATO patrols and an EU agreement to return illegal migrants to Turkey, officials say it is likely that those trying to reach Europe will increasingly try to set off from Libya again. The route has seen a number of mass drownings over the past year of migrants packed into unseaworthy boats.
Germany refused five years ago to back the international military campaign against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, but since his toppling Berlin has been pushing hard to stabilize the North African country, in part to prevent it becoming a hub for people-smugglers and extremist groups such as the Islamic State.
Merkel said the leaders agreed "we will all do whatever we can together to strengthen" the unity government in Libya, but did not go into specific details.
During a recent trip to Tripoli, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier offered to provide the unity government with 10 armored cars worth 3 million euros ($3.38 million) to help protect top officials from assassination.
Juergen Hardt, a German lawmaker and the government's coordinator for trans-Atlantic cooperation, said recently that Germany might also consider assisting the new unity government in driving Islamic State out of Libya.
"We'd end up paying the bill too if we didn't help this (unity) government gain recognition and sovereignty in its country," said Hardt, whose country took in the overwhelming bulk of migrants to Europe last year.
"I wouldn't rule out that an approach like the one targeting IS in Syria could be found and that Germany would play a similar role as in Syria, that's providing airborne reconnaissance and support for those who carry out airstrikes," he told The Associated Press in an interview.
German military help for the new Libyan government could go beyond air support, he added.
"The training effort that we're involved in with the Peshmerga in northern Iraq is a model that is conceivably transferable to reliable forces for the new Libyan government, and that could be done in a neighboring country," Hardt said.
Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.