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Italy welcomes Libya ban on NGO ships in 'search and rescue' zone

Libya says measure is aimed at non-governmental organisations it accuses of facilitating illegal migration
Italian rescue ship Vos Prudence run by NGO Doctor Without Borders arriving in port of Salerno last month carrying 935 migrants rescued from Mediterranean sea (AFP/file photo)

The Italian government on Sunday welcomed Libya's decision to bar foreign vessels from a stretch of water off its coast, as two more international charities halted search and rescue operations in the area.

The comments from Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano came as Save the Children and Sea Eye announced they were suspending operations in the area in response to the Libyan move.

The Libyan government "is ready to put in place a search and rescue zone in its waters, work with Europe and invest in its coastguards," Alfano told La Stampa daily on Sunday.

"This sends a signal that the balance is being restored in the Mediterranean."

Libya's navy last week ordered foreign vessels to stay out of a coastal "search and rescue zone" for migrants headed for Europe, saying the measure was aimed at non-governmental organisations it accuses of facilitating illegal migration.

Six years since a revolution that toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has become a key departure point for migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

Tens of thousands of migrants have resorted to paying people-traffickers for the journey, often on overcrowded and unseaworthy boats, and charities have dispatched ships to rescue them from drowning.

Libya and Italy - where the vast majority of migrants land - have worked together to stem the flow, with Italy also moving to rein in NGOs helping the multinational rescue operations by making them sign up to a new code of conduct.

"We need a significant, I repeat a significant, European economic investment in Libya and in Africa," Alfano said.

"Europe has to decide if the theme of migration flows is an absolute priority on the same scale as the economy. For us, it is". 

The Libyan measure prompted Save the Children to suspend search and rescue work in the area and send its ship Vos Hestia to port in Malta, saying it could not resume without "vital safety and security assurances".

"We have a duty to ensure the safety of our team and the viability of the rescue mission. We need to have these assurances in place, before we can continue with the rescue mission as intended," Save the Children's Operation Director Rob MacGillivray said in a statement.

The announcement from Save the Children followed a similar move by German aid group Sea Eye, which also cited security concerns.

Sea Eye said in a statement that it was with "a heavy heart" that it made its decision, after the Libyan government's "explicit threat against the private NGOs".

Doctors Without Borders suspends migrant rescues in Mediterranean
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"Under these circumstances, a continuation of our rescue work is not currently possible. It would be irresponsible towards our crews," Sea Eye founder Michael Buschheuer said.

A day earlier, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it was halting the use of its largest boat in the area because of an "increasingly hostile environment for lifesaving rescue operations".

Migrant aid ships have played a key role in assisting rescue operations.

Sea Eye said it has helped save about 12,000 lives since April 2016, and cautioned on Sunday that the retreat of aid groups from Libya's coast was putting lives at risk.

"We leave behind a deadly gap in the Mediterranean," Buschheuer said.

The number of migrant arrivals in Italy in July was down dramatically on the same month last year, suggesting efforts to train up and better equip Libya's coastguard may already be having an impact.

The Italian government hailed a decline of more than 50 percent in the number of migrants from Libya reaching its coastline in July as a potential turning point made possible by tougher actions against smugglers operating in the Mediterranean, according to the Guardian.

The interior ministry said 11,193 new arrivals had been registered in July, compared with 23,552 in July 2016.

The decrease in numbers making the crossing is likely to be the result of a more aggressive turnaround policy by the Libyan navy and coastguard, backed by improved boats and equipment – funded by the EU – and Italian-led training, the Guardian said.

In the past few days, the Libyan coastguard has fired warning shots at one NGO ship seeking to rescue migrants. At a news conference on Thursday, the Guardian said, the Libyan navy underlined the message by telling foreign ships to stay outside Libya’s search and rescue zone.

About 600,000 mostly African migrants have arrived in Italy from Libya since the start of 2014.

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