LUXEMBOURG – The European Union boosted the role of its naval operation in the Mediterranean Monday as increasing numbers of desperate migrants flee Libya in unseaworthy boats.
EU foreign ministers agreed at talks in Luxembourg to extend Operation Sophia by a year to July 2017 and tasked it with building up Libya's coast guard and navy. The operation will also help to police a U.N. arms embargo off the Libya coast.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault welcomed the move.
"We have to act against all those who exploit the migrants — the smugglers that earn plenty of money with their boats and who exploit misery. There are so many sinkings and tragedies. And then there is the fight against the arms trafficking that benefits Daesh," he told reporters, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.
The EU wants to move the operation into Libyan waters, and longer-term on land, to thwart migrant smugglers. But divisions in Libya have delayed the broad recognition of a national unity government that would approve the move.
The West hopes Libya's new government will be able to unify the country and help combat the Islamic State affiliate there.
Libya descended into chaos after the 2011 death of leader Moammar Gadhafi, with IS-linked militants gaining strength as two rival governments grappled for control. One, based in Tripoli, was backed by Islamist militias, while another in eastern Libya was internationally recognized.
The coast guard move comes at a time when the Balkan Route for migrants into Europe's heartland has been largely closed and crossings from Libya to Italy, along with the inevitable sinking of unseaworthy boats, are gathering pace again with the warmer weather.