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EU approves 3-phase fight against human trafficking

| Monday, May 18, 2015, 7:57 p.m.

BRUSSELS — European Union nations approved plans Monday for a naval operation to go after the human-trafficking networks that are sending thousands of migrants weekly across the Mediterranean toward Europe or to their deaths. NATO said it stood ready to help, if needed.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she expects the operation to be operating fully next month once Britain, France, Italy and other nations pledge military equipment.

More than 10,000 migrants have been picked up alive from Mediterranean waters in recent weeks as they attempted to enter Europe from Libya. The International Organization for Migration estimates that nearly 1,830 migrants have died on the sea route this year compared to 207 in the same period last year.

The first phase of the EU plan centers on intelligence gathering and surveillance of smuggling routes leading from Libya to southern Italy and Malta. After that, EU ships would start chasing and boarding the smugglers' boats in a second phase. The 28-nation bloc is seeking a U.N. resolution that would give them full legal protection as they destroy the smugglers' boats in a third phase of the plan.

“The fundamental point is not so much the destruction of the vessels, but it is the destruction of the business model of the traffickers,” Mogherini said.

Given that the summer high season for trafficking is rapidly approaching, she said speed was of the essence.

“As summer comes, more people are traveling, and I'd like to have the operation in place as soon as possible,” Mogherini said.

Beyond saving the lives of desperate migrants, an effective operation against traffickers might deal terrorism a blow, she said.

“If you look at the business model of the traffickers and the flows of money involved in trafficking, it may be that that money is financing terrorist activities,” she said.

Stressing the same point, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said “one of the problems is that there might be foreign fighters, there might be terrorists, also trying to hide, to blend in” on the smuggling vessels trying to cross into Europe.

Despite the show of unity on military action, the EU showed increasing divisions on the plan for mandatory quotas for member states to take in refugees, with Spain joining France, Britain and Hungary speaking out against it.

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