EU foreign ministers are due Monday to discuss a Libyan request for the bloc to help train its coastguard, as part of plans to extend a European naval mission aimed at curbing migration flows from the conflict-ridden northern African country.
Libya has been a springboard for migrants trying to reach the European Union, with smuggling networks taking advantage of the political turmoil that gripped the country after longtime dictator Moamer Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.
Brussels set up a naval operation last year, codenamed Operation Sofia, to patrol international waters off the Libyan coast, intercept migrant vessels and arrest suspected smugglers, with a view to dismantling their business model.
But the operation has been criticized by some for being too restricted in its scope. While it has rescued almost 14,000 migrants at sea, it has no authority to enter Libyan territorial waters, where many of the smugglers operate.
The EU has been waiting for the formation of a unity government in Libya - a step that occurred last month - in the hope that it would then ask the bloc to expand Operation Sofia.
The request from Libyan Prime Minister Fajez Sarraj for coastguard training arrived Sunday, a day before EU foreign ministers were due to discuss a possible expansion of the operation.
"It's an invitation that we will welcome," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said ahead of Monday's talks. "It will be very important to control the Libyan territorial waters, to do it together with our Libyan partners, and therefore also control the migratory flows," she added.
The aim is to support the new Libyan government "on its path to stability and new statehood," said German State Minister Michael Roth. There are some questions around the legitimacy of Sarraj's government to request the EU's naval assistance.
A functioning government is also seen as key to fighting the Islamic State extremist movement, which has used the political vacuum to gain a foothold in Libya.
Once the ministers have agreed in principle to the Libyan request, a legal decision to expand Operation Sofia could follow quickly, a senior EU official said Friday on condition of anonymity, noting that one ship could suffice to provide the training.
France, meanwhile, would also like the mission to help enforce an arms embargo against Libya. Paris believes that Islamic State militants in Libya are being supplied via the Mediterranean Sea.
The ministers are also due Monday to discuss the EU's overall response to migration challenges, in cooperation with countries of origin and transit, as well as the bloc's strategy to tackle the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
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