UN approves EU ships to seize illegal arms off Libya

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The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Monday to allow the European Union's maritime force to seize illegal weapons off Libya's coast for another year, a move aimed at helping restore peace to the deeply divided north African nation.

The British-drafted resolution authorizes EU ships in Operation Sophia to stop vessels on the high seas off Libya's coast suspected of smuggling arms in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. Operation Sophia is also charged with seizing migrant-smuggling vessels.

Italy's Deputy Foreign Minister Vincenzo Amendola told the council after the vote that by speaking with one voice the members again showed their "strong commitment to the stability and security of Libya."

He said the council also "emphasized the importance of working together to protect the country from the threat posed by the combination of terrorism and proliferation of weapons."

Libya slid into chaos following the 2011 toppling and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Since 2014, the oil-rich country has been torn between two parliaments and governments, with each backed by a loose set of militias and tribes. Fighters from the Islamic State extremist group have exploited the turmoil, triggering fears in Europe at the prospects of an expanding extremist-run bastion on its doorstep, just across the Mediterranean Sea.

Meanwhile, a U.N.-brokered unity government is struggling to gain control of the country, which is awash with weapons.

"The Mediterranean Sea, especially off the coasts of Libya, is facing multiple challenges" Amendola said, citing human trafficking and the smuggling of weapons, crude oil and other products.

"All these flows benefit from the volatile situation in the country and can increase the intensity, duration and complexity of the Libyan crisis," Amendola said. "The stabilization of Libya is the best way to tackle this problem."

Britain's deputy ambassador Peter Wilson said Libya continues "to suffer from political instability" and illegal arms smuggling is fueling and prolonging the conflict.

Since the council adopted the initial resolution authorizing EU vessels to stop ships suspected of carrying illegal weapons in June 2016, he said Operation Sophia has acted as a deterrent.

Wilson said this has provided "important space" for dialogue between the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli and other political actors.