The EU ministers agreed to the naval operation at a meeting in Brussels on Monday. Aimed at simmering down the country’s ongoing civil war, the operation will also have an air component and the possibility of ground forces, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio was quoted by AFP as saying.

The move was not universally welcome in Europe, and EU Foreign Affairs chief Josep Borrell had even predicted that an agreement would not be reached. Austria in particular opposed the mission, claiming that European ships in the Mediterranean would be seen by migrants as a rescue fleet, and would prompt more to attempt perilous sea crossings. 

A naval blockade would do little to stop the flow of arms into war-torn Libya, as most weapons arrive by land and air, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg has argued.

German FM Heiko Maas assured his wary counterparts that the mission would focus only on the eastern Mediterranean, “where the weapons routes run,” while Borrell added that “if it creates a ‘pull factor’, that is to say the ships attract migrants, the mission will be stopped.”

The mission replaces Operation Sophia, a 2015 naval mission in the Mediterranean, suspended in March 2019 after Italy objected to European warships rescuing and landing migrants in its ports. Continuing as an aerial surveillance mission since last March, Operation Sophia was formally ended on Monday.

Libya has been consumed by conflict since a NATO-backed rebellion toppled the government of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and executed the long-ruling African leader. Civil war is currently raging between the UN-backed Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli, and the Libyan National Army, under the command of General Khalifa Haftar. 

Haftar’s forces swept westward from their stronghold of Tobruk in recent months, and now hold territory on the outskirts of Tripoli. A ceasefire between both sides is close to collapsing, the deputy head of the UN’s mission to Libya warned on Sunday.

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