By Robert Harneis –TDO-(FRANCE) Italy has given official support to Libya’s decision to ban unauthorized NGO rescue vessels from its coastal waters. Justifying their position, the Italian Interior Ministry said there were 11,193 new arrivals in July, compared to 23,552 last July.

Italy has sent two ships to Libya, to help the Libyan coastguard in patrolling the sea and has come to an agreement with Libya to train and equip its coastguard.

Italy’s foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, told La Stampa, an Italian newspaper, that Libya’s actions meant that “balance is being restored in the Mediterranean”. He said the Libyan government was “ready to put in place a search-and-rescue zone in its waters, work with Europe and invest in its coast guards”.

“We need a significant, I repeat a significant European economic investment in Libya and in Africa,” he added. “Europe has to decide if the theme of migration flows is an absolute priority on the same scale as the economy. For us, it is,” he said.

Most NGOs involved in migrant rescues in the region suspended their operations over the weekend due to threats from Libyan authorities. Save the Children said the Libyan navy had claimed control over a zone up to 70 nautical miles off its shores. Its operations director, Rob MacGillivray, said that “by entering that area, our operation may be in danger”.

Ayoub Qassem, a spokesman for the Libyan coastguard, told the Reuters news agency that NGOs could still operate in its zone but had to show more “respect”.  He said, «In general, we do not reject their presence, but we demand from them more cooperation with the state of Libya ... they should show more respect to Libyan sovereignty,”.

He said last Tuesday, after Libyan vessels fired warning shots against ProActiva’s boat 13 miles off Libya’s coast, that: “They don't have permission to work there.”

The Italian government is reacting to political pressure and the rise of the popularity of anti-immigration parties. In addition, there are suspicions that some NGOs may be acting in cooperation with the immigrant smugglers and thus encouraging the traffic.

Despite opposition from NGOs, the Italian government has the support of the United Nations. Ghassan Salame, the UN special envoy to Libya, said on 8 August that "cooperation and transparency between Italy and Libya is the most constructive way" to stop smugglers from taking people on small boats to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. "We are on the right track in this sector, addressing a challenge that involves everyone," he added, after meeting Alfano in Rome.

In his meeting with UN envoy Salame, Alfano also asked the international body to support Italian efforts to stabilize the political situation in Libya. He said "negotiation formats in Libya must be reduced to one," and that "the UN needs to take the leadership." The demand comes two weeks after the French president, Emmanuel Macron, angered the Italian government by holding a meeting with the two rival Libyan political leaders, Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar, to which no Italian representatives were invited. "Political instability in Libya is not a second-tier match - it is an absolute priority," Alfano insisted.

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