New EU Libya sea patrols in April

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The European Union will launch a new Mediterranean naval and air mission in April to stop arms reaching warring factions in Libya, EU diplomats said, as Greece agreed to take in migrants rescued at sea.

The decision, delayed by divisions over migrants, followed warnings by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell the bloc risked irrelevancy if it did not act, potentially leaving Libya’s fate to Turkey and Russia.

“Greece allowed disembarkation (of rescued migrants) in its ports,” said an EU diplomat in the negotiations, adding other EU governments agreed to help cover harbour costs of bringing the rescued ashore to avoid further financial pressure on Athens.

The new mission, Irini, will replace the EU’s current military mission, Operation Sophia, which stopped deploying ships a year ago after Italy, facing an anti-immigrant backlash, said it would no longer take migrants rescued at sea.

With thousands making the perilous crossing from North Africa each year and many drowning, EU ships are required under international law to rescue those in trouble.

Sophia’s mandate expires at the end of March, meaning Irini aims to start patrolling the eastern Mediterranean, where most arms smuggling takes place, from April. Diplomats acknowledge the EU is unable to patrol the Egypt-Libya land border, through which artillery is delivered.