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Mediterranean boat migrants

Italy's cabinet seeks approval for bolstered Libya migrant mission

Italy's cabinet has moved closer to sending naval units to intercept migrant boats inside Libya waters, but Libya's PM voiced reservations. The EU has approved funding via Italy to boost Libya's border and coastguards.

Libyen Küstenwache rettet Flüchtlinge auf dem Mittelmeer (Getty Images/AFP/T. Jawashi)

A Libyan recovery off the coastal town of Zawiyah, near Tripoli

Tripoli's Prime Minister Fayez Serraj whose UN-backed unity administration governs only a portion of lawless Libya, on Friday stuck to his denial that Italy had been asked to send naval vessels into Libyan waters.

"Libya's national sovereignty is a red line that nobody must cross," Serraj said in statement published in Tripoli.

Serraj seemed to be responding to a newspaper report in the Corriere della Serra daily paper, which said that Italian ships would intercept migrant boats and take their occupants back to the Libyan shore, assuming Libyan authorities gave written assurances to respect those migrants' human rights. The report also said that planes, helicopters and drones would be deployed.

The Libyan government's statement said that it "denies having asked Italy to send naval vessels into Libya's territorial waters ... or fighter planes into Libyan airspace."

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni later announced that his cabinet had decided to ask Italy's parliament for broad approval to launch a naval mission to deter migrant traffickers. But Gentiloni also sought to reassure Libya about the mission's scope.

"This is an important initiative because it can give significant help towards strengthening Libyan sovereignty. It is certainly not an initiative aimed at hurting Libyan sovereignty," Gentiloni told reporters. "It would certainly not reflect reality to say the government was planning to send an enormous fleet and squadrons of aircraft. We are talking about a request, which we have accepted, to help the Libyan government."

Read: Italy, NGOs argue over migrant rescue 'code of conduct'

Funding granted, says Mogherini 

From Brussels, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said 46 million euros ($53 million) would be allocated via Italy to provide equipment and training to Libyan coast and border guards.

Their task would be to "address the migration flows, rescue migrants, making sure that human rights are respected, and fight against the smuggling networks," Mogherini said.

So far this year, 94,000 boat migrants have reached Italy, using Libya as a main Mediterranean coastal departure zone to reach Europe in often flimsy and overloaded boats.

More than 2,370 people have died in those crossings since January, according the UN refugee agency.

'Fantastic' efforts

Two weeks ago, on the fringe of an EU summit in Trieste, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel thanked Gentiloni for Italy's "fantastic" efforts on migrant reception.

A pensive-looking Paolo Gentiloni seated on a gilded chair (Reuters/A. Bianchi)

Gentiloni's Italy carries the main migrant burden

At the time, Gentiloni urged EU member nations, including those in Europe's east, who have long been reluctant to accept refugees, to assume some of the migrant burden.

Italy's interior minister Marco Minniti said in early July that Rome wanted to shift asylum application processing from Italy to crisis-hit Libya, and safely bring to Europe those who win the right to protection.

"We have to distinguish, before they set off [across the Mediterranean], between those who have a right to humanitarian protection and those who don't," Minniti said.

ipj/msh (AFP, dpa, KNA, AP)

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