Libyan military strongman threatens Italian ships trying to stop flow of migrants

Monday, 07 August 2017 10:52 Written by  Raf Sanchez, Middle East correspondent Published in English Articles Read 290 times

Italian naval ships have been deployed to try to stop migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean

The army general in charge of eastern Libya has threatened to confront Italian naval ships that are heading to the Libyan coast to help stop the flow of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean. 

Italy’s parliament has authorised the country’s navy to carry out the mission but the presence of Italian ships in Libya’s waters prompted angry reactions inside the north African country. 

General Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of eastern Libya, threatened to use his own forces to repel the Italians if they came into Libyan sovereign waters. 

“Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, issues orders to the Libyan naval bases in Tobruk, Benghazi, Ras Lanuf and Tripoli to confront any marine unit that enters the Libyan waters without the permission of the army,” the Libyan National Army said in a statement.

Gen Haftar's forces control most of eastern Libya
Gen Haftar's forces control most of eastern Libya Credit: ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images

Gen Haftar’s forces are unlikely to open fire on the Italians and risk a confrontation with a major European country. But the threat may complicate the already delicate Italian mission in Libya and strain relations between Gen Haftar and Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli. 

The warning also reflects broader anger in Libya over the intervention of Italy, a former colonial power that ruled Libya for the first half of the 20th century.   

Italy’s government said it was sending the two ships to try to curb the flow of migrants and refugees, which has seen 600,000 people arrive in Italy in the past four years. 

Migration has become a major political issue in Italy and the government is under pressure to cut the number of people arriving. 

Italy said it was deploying the warships at the request of the UN-backed government in Tripoli and insisted it had no intention of violating Italian sovereignty. 

Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said there was no attempt to undermine Libyan sovereignty 
Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said there was no attempt to undermine Libyan sovereignty  Credit: Angelo Carconi/ANSA via AP

"There will be no harm done or slight given to Libyan sovereignty, because, if anything, our aim is to strengthen Libyan sovereignty," Roberta Pinotti, the Italian defence minister, told parliament. 

But in widespread social media posts, Libyans protested against the Italian presence. Many posted pictures of Omar al-Mukhtar, a national hero who fought the Italian forces in the early 1900s. 

One Italian patrol boat has already reached Libyan waters and a second is due to arrive soon. 

Human rights groups have criticised the Italian naval mission, saying it would leave people languishing in detention centres in Libya where they face potential torture or even death.    

“Italy, along with other EU member states, should be focusing on increasing its search and rescue operations. Instead it has chosen to shirk its responsibilities and endanger the very people it says it is trying to help,” said Amnesty International. 

Meanwhile, Italy warned NGO groups carrying out rescue missions in the Mediterranean that would have to halt their operations if they did not agree to a new set of rules governing their behaviour. 

The government warning came after a German NGO was accused of aiding illegal immigration by meeting with people traffickers off the Libyan coast and taking migrants directly from the traffickers onto their boat.

The Iuventa Ship of the German NGO Jugend Rettet was impounded
The Iuventa Ship of the German NGO Jugend Rettet was impounded Credit: Elio Desiderio/ANSA via AP

Italian prosecutors said that the NGO, Jugend Rettet, collaborated with the smugglers out of a zeal for humanitarian work but that it may have broken immigration law in the process. The NGO met the smugglers three times between October 2016 and June 2017 but no money was exchanged, prosecutors said.  

The group’s 100-foot-long boat, Iuventa, was impounded and the NGO said it was assessing the accusations. The allegations fueled calls by Italian MPs for tougher laws on NGO activities. 

Three of the nine humanitarian groups carrying out rescue operations have signed up to the new Italian regulations, including Save the Children. Among those who have refused to sign is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).     

MSF said the new regulations “will not only be unhelpful for rescue activities, but could result in reduced rescue capacity, and consequently result in further drownings”.

Gen Haftar and the prime minister of the UN-backed government, Fayez al-Sarraj, agreed to a ceasefire deal last week after talks brokered by Emmanuel Macron, the president of France. 

Analysts were sceptical that the agreement would end the political chaos in Libya. 

The deal gave Gen Haftar permission to continue military operations for counter-terrorism reasons and the general considers almost all his enemies to be terrorists.   

The UN-backed government also has little control over a series of militias that are aligned with it and may prove too weak to force its side to stop fighting.

Source=http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/03/libyan-military-strongman-threatens-italian-ships-trying-stop/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_em

Last modified on Monday, 07 August 2017 10:57