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EU aims to step up help to Libya coastguards on migrant patrols

By Aidan Lewis

TUNIS (Reuters) - The European Union wants to rapidly expand training of Libyan coastguards to stem migrant flows to Italy and reduce deaths at sea, an EU naval mission said on Thursday, signaling a renewed push to support a force struggling to patrol its own coasts.

Despite growing help from the EU and Italy, Libya's coastguard has continued to be accused by European charities of operating recklessly during rescues and putting migrants' lives at risk - accusations the coastguard routinely denies.

Six years after the revolution that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is split between rival governments in the east and west while ports and beaches are largely in the hands of armed groups.

But Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino, the chief of the EU naval mission in the Mediterranean, said his Operation Sophia hopes to train 300-500 personnel by the end of the year.

Since 2016 the operation has trained 188 Libyans, which Credendino said had contributed to a sharp fall in the number of attempted crossings in the second half of last year.

"The Libyan coastguard has been very active, particularly in the second semester of 2017," Credendino said, adding this was thanks to training by the mission and to the patrol boats supplied by Italy.

Operation Sophia began monitoring the Libyan trainees in late 2017, providing Go-Pro cameras to Libyan coastguard boats to record their work.

"We monitor the Libyan coastguard, observing them at sea. We have airplanes, we have ships that are observing them. And we also have periodic meetings" with Libyan coastguard, he said.

Libya remains the main departure point for mainly sub-Saharan African migrants trying to reach Europe by sea, though the level of migrant smuggling by Libyan armed groups has dropped under European pressure.

MILITIAS

Credendino said it was difficult to confirm the links that UN experts allege exist between smugglers and Libyan coastguards, adding Operation Sophia was still trying to build a picture of smuggling networks.

"At sea, there is not only the military coastguard, but there are also militias who are wearing the same uniform, using the same kind of boats."

More than 130 alleged smugglers have been arrested at sea and handed to Italian authorities, but major migrant smugglers in Libya have largely acted with impunity, out of reach of international authorities.

"We are working with a lot of international actors, Interpol, Europol, Frontex ... We are building a picture but it's too early to make an actual assessment," Credendino said.

On Wednesday, the head of investigations for Libya's attorney general said arrest warrants had been issued for 205 people accused of involvement in migrant smuggling or trafficking. Eleven representatives of foreign embassies had already been detained, Sadiq al-Sour said without elaborating.

Operation Sophia has destroyed more than 500 intercepted smuggler boats, in addition to those destroyed by the Italian navy, but Credendino said it was currently impossible to block the import of flimsy rubber dinghies commonly used by smugglers.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami, editing by William Maclean)