Austria blocking EU attempt to revive naval mission for Libya

Austrians continue to block deployment of EU ships for fear of reactivating rescue fleet that would end up ferrying migrants to Europe's ports.

BRUSSELS - Austria is blocking attempts by other EU members to revive a Mediterranean naval operation to enforce an arms embargo on war-torn Libya, diplomats said Friday.

Europe's Operation Sophia was set up in 2015 to fight human trafficking but has been without ships since early last year after Italy refused to accept rescued migrants in its ports.

Brussels and some member states would like to revive it to focus on enforcing the UN arms embargo on Libya - where several foreign powers are arming both sides in a civil war.

But some EU capitals see this as a ruse to reactivate a rescue fleet that would end up ferrying migrants to Europe's ports.

"The Austrians continue to block the deployment of ships and they say they have Hungary's support," one European diplomat said. "They argue a ship creates a flow of migrants."

EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell has said the renewed mission would focus on known weapons smuggling routes, away from the areas that human traffickers use to bring migrants from Libya.

But Sebastian Kurz - premier of land-locked Austria - is not convinced.

Earlier this month he branded the attempt to renew Sophia a "pretext" for sending Europe's navies to rescue migrant boats.

Italy has had a change in government since former interior minister Matteo Salvini refused to accept rescued migrants, but remains sceptical and has asked that Sophia's name be changed.

Other European government, however, worry that by blocking Sophia, Austria is forcing Europe to stand aside while Turkey and Russia take advantage of the situation.

Russia backs the forces of eastern Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, while Turkey has sent troops to shore up the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.

According to a diplomat, "with its position, Austria is leaving the sea to others and not helping calm the crisis in Libya."