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EU to revamp anti-smuggler mission for UN Libya arms embargo

BRUSSELS – European Union countries have agreed to “refocus” the mission of the bloc’s anti-migrant smuggler naval operation in the Mediterranean Sea so that it concentrates on upholding the U.N. arms embargo against Libya, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday.

After chairing talks between EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Borrell said that the bloc will also examine ways to help monitor a cease-fire in the conflict-torn country once one actually comes into force and replaces the shaky truce currently in place.

He told reporters that EU ambassadors and experts have been tasked with presenting “concrete proposals on how to implement this cease-fire and enforcing the U.N. arms embargo, by the time the ministers next meet in Brussels on Feb. 17.

“In the meantime, we have to pass from truce to a real cease-fire,” Borrell said. “We are in a truce, which is unstable. A truce can be violated several times a day. Without a cease-fire it’s going to be difficult to imagine any kind of strong engagement of the European Union.”

Libya has sunk deeper into chaos since its long-time dictator, Moammar Gadhafi was ousted and killed in 2011. It is now divided into rival administrations, each backed by different nations: the U.N.-recognized government based in Tripoli, headed by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, and one based in the country's east, supported by Gen. Khalifa Hifter.

The EU has deployed a naval mission, Operation Sophia, into the Mediterranean to monitor the U.N. arms embargo on Libya as well as combat migrant smuggling from the country, but Italy believes its presence only encourages migrants to set out for its shores from northern Africa.

Last year, the government in Rome blocked the deployment of any ships to the mission, and it currently functions almost exclusively using aircraft and pilot-less drones. Borrell said the ministers agreed to “refocus the mandate” of Operation Sophia on the arms embargo.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said Sophia could be used only if it is “dismantled and reassembled in a completely different way.”

“It would be a mission for monitoring the embargo, and nothing else,” he said.

Under international law, ships in the vicinity of any distress call at sea are obliged to rescue people.

World powers and other countries with interests in Libya's long-running civil war agreed Sunday to respect a much-violated arms embargo, hold off on military support to the warring parties and push them to reach a full cease-fire.