Italian authorities approve Libya support mission

Confiscated NGO ship Iuventa heading to Trapani

Italy sent its military forces to Libyan waters to tackle human smuggling upon request by the United Nations -backed government in Tripoli.

This file photo taken on November 4, 2016 shows The "Iuventa", a rescue ship sailing off the Libyan coast during a rescue mission in the Mediterranean sea.

"The evidence is serious", he said, adding: "We have evidence of encounters between traffickers, who escorted illegal immigrants to the Iuventa, and members of the boat's crew".

Italy said that the mission is based on a request by the UN-backed government in Tripoli.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers are brought to Italy each year from Libya in overcrowded boats that are often not seaworthy.

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

Minniti meanwhile said that a sharp fall over recent weeks in the number of migrants arriving in Italy following rescues was an indication that efforts to beef up the Libyan coastguard and co-operation with local mayors was bearing fruit.

A total 34 percent of rescue operations in the Mediterranean were carried out by NGOs and private rescue teams in the first four months of this year - more than by Italian coastguard or European border patrol forces, according to Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti.

However Italy has no intention to create a naval blockade, which would be a "hostile act", she said, insisting that support for the Libyan mission was the aim and cooperation was necessary.

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The Dutch-flagged boat ordered by prosecutors to remain in port in Lampedusa, a tiny fishing island off Sicily, is operated by Berlin-based migrant rescue group Jugend Rettet. "Refugees International, which is based in Washington, D.C., says returned migrants face detention and abuse at the hands of traffickers and even the coastguard".

At least 2,221 people have drowned this year while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Libya.

The prosecutor, however, said the vessel was seized preventatively as it appears there was no "coordinated plan", nor any money exchanged, and the NGO was likely driven by "humanitarian motives" when they reached an "understanding" with the smugglers.

Cartosio said he thought those involved had been driven purely by "humanitarian motives".

Investigators have yet to single out suspects, saying that at the moment the probe is into "persons unknown".

Sticking points cited were obligations for rescue boats to operate with an Italian police official on board and a ban on moving rescued migrants from one aid vessel to another while still at sea.

They later took charge of the boat.

In July, Italy's center-left government threatened to close its ports to NGO's operating rescue boats that did not sign a "code of conduct".

Jugend Rettet wants new code of conduct after Italy claims its vessel's volunteers had contact with Libyan smugglers.

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