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Austria blocks EU from Libya sea patrols over migrants

Italy is prepared to consider a resumption of maritime patrols in the Mediterranean, a senior official said, but diplomats said Austria is sticking to its objections, in a blow to European efforts to uphold a U.N. arms embargo on Libya.

The EU’s military mission Operation Sophia stopped deploying ships last March after Italy, facing an anti-immigrant backlash, said it would no longer receive those rescued at sea.

Italy is ready to restart the sea patrols, the country’s vice foreign minister told Reuters, but diplomats said Austria was still blocking the move, based on its position that people rescued on the high seas should not be taken to Europe.

Italy also insists the mission not focus on rescues while accepting the principle of renewed sea patrols, following a summit of world leaders last month in Berlin to seek a ceasefire among Libya’s two rival governments.

“The reactivation of Operation (Sophia) is possible but with a profoundly revised mandate and a focus on the arms embargo in Libya,” Italy’s vice foreign minister Emanuela Del Re told Reuters on Tuesday.

However, diplomats said that despite weeks of negotiations, Austria’s conservative government has retained its objections. The EU needs the support of all 27 member countries to restart the maritime patrols.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz says Austria is a “target country” for migrants seeking a better life in Europe, similarly to Germany and Sweden and is opposed to the maritime patrols, arguing that rescuing people encourages more to come.

Diplomats said Vienna had rejected a compromise for the mission to resume in phases, starting with air surveillance over the sea, then moving into all Libyan airspace and then with a final phase using all available EU assets on air, land and sea.

At a news conference with his German counterpart Angela Merkel last week, Kurz said enforcing the U.N. embargo was “possible from the air”. However, EU military commanders who briefed EU diplomats this month warned that anti-aircraft systems in Libya made such overflights increasingly risky.

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell, who has warned the bloc it may become irrelevant if it cannot act more assertively, hoped to reach a deal to revive the maritime patrols on Feb. 17 at a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels.

Borrell noted in a speech to the European Parliament on Monday that Austria has “major concerns” about reviving a mission that many EU governments said had been effective in dissuading smugglers when first launched in June 2015.

Borrell told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper that a compromise was sea patrols away from the central Mediterranean and migrant routes, “further to the east toward Benghazi, or even by the Suez canal. The arms come from the east.”

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