EU foreign ministers agree to a new naval operation to enforce an arms embargo on war-torn Libya, overcoming objections from countries who fear it may encourage new migrant flows.

Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, centre, talks to Italy's Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio, left, and Bulgaria's Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva during a European Foreign Affairs meeting at the Europa building in Brussels, Monday, February 17, 2020.
Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, centre, talks to Italy's Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio, left, and Bulgaria's Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva during a European Foreign Affairs meeting at the Europa building in Brussels, Monday, February 17, 2020. (AP)

The European Union countries agreed on Monday to end Operation Sophia, the bloc's naval mission in the Mediterranean Sea, and launch a new effort focused more on enforcing a UN arms embargo around Libya, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said.

"Operation Sophia is closed. Finished," Asselborn told reporters in Brussels on the sidelines of a meeting of EU foreign ministers. 

He said a "political agreement" had been reached to close the operation, launched in 2015 to crack down on migrant smugglers when its mandate expires in March.

He said a legal text defining the exact terms of the new mission must still be thrashed out by experts. 

The idea is to shift the new operation further west, away from the usual waters used by migrants leaving Libya in search of better lives in Europe.

No weapons, no war

Referring to the as-yet-unnamed operation, Asselborn said, "the main objective is the arms embargo."

"If there are no weapons, there's no war. There are thousands of thousands of weapons in Libya," he said.

Asselborn said the new operation "will have three levels, in the air, satellite and maritime."

Should the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell consider that migrants are being drawn toward the mission in hopes of being picked up, the "maritime assets will be withdrawn from the relevant area."

The new mission will include ships as well as air capacity and the possibility of ground forces, Italy's Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said.

"We all agreed to create a mission to block the entry of arms into Libya, with rules of engagement," di Maio said.

"If it creates a 'pull factor,' that is to say, the ships attract migrants, the mission will be stopped."

Return of warships

The naval mission, was launched in 2015 amid a wave of migration across the sea from North Africa to Europe. 

The aim was to crack down on migrant smugglers and enforce a UN arms embargo on conflict-torn Libya, which is routinely being flouted.

But tensions between EU nations over how to distribute migrants picked up at sea and claims that the naval presence might only encourage smugglers led Italy to block the deployment of further ships last year. 

It currently functions almost exclusively using aircraft and pilot-less drones. Austria, too, opposed the return of warships.

Turmoil in Libya 

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011 when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was later killed. Fighting between the country's factions has intensified over the last year.

A weak UN-recognised Libyan government that now holds the capital Tripoli and parts of the country's west is backed by Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar and Italy, as well as local militias. 

On the other side is an illegal militia in the east that supports warlord Khalifa Haftar, whose forces launched an offensive to capture Tripoli last April. They are backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France and Russia.    

Source: AP