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NATO's Aegean mission to target 'smuggling operation'

NATO has approved an Aegean Sea naval mission to impede migrants from entering the EU. The US defense secretary said the mission will specifically target human traffickers.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday that NATO approved a mission in the Aegean Sea that seeks to impede migrants from entering the EU via Greece.

"It is important that we now act quickly," von der Leyen told reporters at NATO's headquarters in Brussels.

The request for NATO to consider launching such an operation was submitted by

Germany, Greece and Turkey,

as the

EU struggles to form a comprehensive response

to more than a million migrants entering the bloc in 2015, many

fleeing war in the Middle East,

Asia and Africa.

Under the plan, a NATO naval force will be sent to the Aegean to conduct reconnaissance missions and obtain strategic information on human traffickers in the area. The information will then be forwarded to Turkish and Greek authorities as well as the EU border protection agency Frontex, von der Leyen added.

Von der Leyen said the aim was to gain a "clear view" of how the people smugglers were operating along the Turkish coast. In cases of emergencies where migrants' lives were threatened, she said, NATO forces would save them and transfer them back to Turkey, with Ankara's consent.

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'Criminal syndicate'

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Thursday said the mission in the Aegean Sea would specifically target

migrant smugglers.

"There is now a criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people and this is an organized smuggling operation," Carter told reporters at NATO's headquarters in Brussels.

"Targeting that is the way that the greatest effect can be had in the humanitarian dimension," Carter said.

The NATO defense ministers also agreed to

increase reinforcements on the alliance's eastern flank

to deter a perceived Russian threat.

The 28-nation alliance is considering further support for the US-led coalition fighting the self-styled "Islamic State" militant group in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, foreign ministers from several countries involved in the Syrian conflict are meeting in Munich in an

attempt to secure a political end

to nearly five years of civil war.

ls/msh (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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