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European Union naval forces now have the authority to board, search, seize, and divert ships on the Mediterranean suspected smuggling migrants and refugees to Europe.
The broad powers, which also allow for traffickers to be arrested in international waters, are part of a new mission launched on June 22 to "disrupt the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean."
The mission, formerly known as EUNAVFOR MED (European Union Naval Force in the Mediterranean), was recently renamed Sophia after a baby that was born aboard a German frigate during a rescue in August.
The operation is staffed by 1,300 personnel from 22 European countries, and currently operates six vessels, including one Italian aircraft carrier, two German warships, one ship each from Britain and Spain, and one French frigate.
According to the EU, ships deployed in the Mediterranean during the mission's reconnaissance phase rescued some 3,000 migrants and refugees.
EU forces will now be able to stop and search any vessel traveling in international waters off the coast of Libya. Four of the 10 areas that will be patrolled by EU ships are situated "along the 12-nautical mile mark that separates international from Libyan waters," according to AFP.
In an interview with news site Bruxelles 2, Admiral Hervé Bléjean, the operation's deputy commander, explained that any suspects arrested during the mission will be prosecuted in one of the countries that is taking part in the operation. Italian authorities have already offered to handle cases.
According to the EU, the Italians are currently dealing with 16 suspected smugglers who were picked up as part of the ongoing naval operation. EU forces have reportedly identified 20 smuggling boats in the past few weeks, 17 of which set off from Libya and three from Egypt.
Europe hopes to eventually move on to the third phase of the operation, which would see EU forces empowered to intervene in Libya's territorial waters and onshore in Libya. Those actions would require both Libyan cooperation and approval from the UN Security Council.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 560,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe since the start of 2015. Around 3,000 people have died at sea during that time.
Follow Lucie Aubourg on Twitter: @LucieAbrg
Photo of EUNAVFOR forces deployed as part of the Atalanta anti-piracy mission off the Somali coast via EUNAVFOR
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