The European Union has kicked off a military operation in international waters in the Mediterranean to arrest refugee traffickers dubbed the “mafia of the sea” amid a huge influx of asylum seekers to the continent.
The second phase of the operation known as EUNAVFOR MED, an operation that aims to dismantle the network of smugglers helping the refugee boat crisis, began on Wednesday.
The first phase, involving gathering and analyzing information on the trafficker networks, had started in June.
The operation includes six ships patrolling international waters off the coast of Libya that is the departure point for many of the refugee boats. The vessels are an Italian aircraft carrier, a French frigate and one British, one Spanish and two German ships.
At least three other ships are scheduled to join the operation, which also contains four aircraft and 1,318 personnel, at the end of October.
The operation was given the green light last month, but EU ships are not allowed to pursue traffickers into Libyan waters for the time being.
“We follow the traffickers and want to arrest them and seize their ships,” said Stefan Klattthe captain of Werra, one of the German ships taking part in the operation, adding that he would get as close to Libyan waters as he can.
The vessels will patrol over 10 areas off the Libyan coast, four of which are along the 12-nautical mile mark which separates international from Libyan waters, while the others are further out to sea.
The operation is also expected to put the whole of the northwestern coast of Libya from the Tunisian border to Sirte on lockdown.
However, the United Nations Security Council and Libyan authorities should allow the operation to enter Libyan waters.
So far this year, nearly half a million refugees, mainly from Syria, which is suffering from foreign-backed violence, have risked their lives by taking boats and undertaking the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, official figures show. Some 2,800 have died en route.