The UK is set to send a Royal Navy warship to the Mediterranean to help tackle arms smuggling in Libya, Prime Minister David Cameron has announced.
He told the G7 summit in Japan the UK was ready to take an “active leadership role” in helping Libya deal with people trafficking and the migration crisis. The UK already has a survey vessel, HMS Enterprise, operating in the area.
Officials are to seek UN approval for the new warship to seize boats taking arms to so-called Islamic State.
Last week, the new Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya asked the European Union – which is running a mission, called Operation Sophia, in the area – for more assistance. It requested help in training its navy and coastguard, as well as stopping the trafficking of migrants across the Mediterranean. The GNA is also believed to be considering a request for international ships to operate in Libyan waters.
Speaking in Japan, Mr Cameron said Libya was “a danger to all of us” and the UK would deploy a warship to the area, subject to the UN approving Libya’s request. He said the UK was “working closely” with the EU to tackle people-trafficking in the central Mediterranean.
The UK also plans to send a training team to “assist” with the implementation of plans to help train the Libyan coastguard, he added. Mr Cameron said: “Once the relevant permissions and UN security council resolution are in place I will deploy a naval warship to the south central Mediterranean to combat arms trafficking in the region. “Together these developments will help stabilise Libya, secure its coast and tackle the migration crisis.”
The EU operation – which currently has five ships, including an Italian aircraft carrier and frigates from Spain and Germany – has faced strong criticism. A House of Lords committee published this month said the mission was failing to achieve its aims and does not “in any meaningful way” disrupt smugglers’ boats.
There are a number of motives for David Cameron’s announcement. Another year of desperate migrants crammed into small boats fleeing to Europe heightens demand for western intervention.
But it is not just humanitarian reasons. Mr Cameron is also trying to win a referendum, which has exposed public concern about immigration. And then there’s the question of how to combat Islamic State’s foothold in Libya. But before he can intervene there are big obstacles ahead.
The Royal Navy is trying to work out what it can do (it is still not clear what additional warship it might send). Training Libya’s barely existent coastguard won’t be easy either. Where could it be done in safety and when Libya’s fledgling unity government doesn’t want western boots on the ground?
Western countries have not yet had a formal invitation to even enter Libyan waters. As for intercepting boats that might be carrying weapons or being used by trafficking gangs, that would require a UN Security Council Resolution.
The deployment of a warship would move the UK another step closer to direct military involvement in the Libyan conflict, diplomatic correspondent James Landale said. It represented “quite a substantial move forward” in the UK’s involvement in the Libyan conflict, our correspondent added.
On Thursday, Crispin Blunt, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, called for “proper accounting” of what British special forces are doing in Libya. It followed reports by the Times that UK troops fired a missile to destroy an IS truck packed with explosives.
This week, the UK sent four military planners to the Rome headquarters of Operation Sophia, with the goal of preparing a plan to improve the effectiveness of the Libyan coastguard. Mr Cameron first put forward the idea of extending Operation Sophia into Libyan territorial waters at a Brussels summit of the EU in March.
He warned that the number of migrants attempting to cross via the central Mediterranean could be expected to swell once the alternative route through Turkey, Greece and the western Balkans had been closed.
In 2011, the UK assisted international efforts to back rebels fighting to overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The rebels succeeded but the country has since descended into civil war, with the formation of hundreds of militias – some allied to IS. Aid agencies say the sea-crossing between Libya and Italy is now the main route for migrants trying to get to Europe.
It follows a EU deal with Turkey, which came into effect in March, to curb the number of people sailing across the Aegean Sea, towards Greece. On Wednesday, images of a deadly capsizing of a boat were released by the Italian navy.
Nearly 6,000 migrants trying to reach Europe illegally have been rescued from flimsy craft in the Mediterranean in recent days, officials have said.