Libya has always been a tragic part of the Mediterranean migrant crisis. Over the past several years, thousands of lives have been lost as overcrowded boats make the dangerous crossing to Italian islands. Over this time, the Libyan and Italian Coast Guards have also saved many more lives. In more recent months though, Turkey has received the majority of migrant-related coverage. Horrific images, particularly of young children, galvanized public opinion across the world. Migrants attempting to enter Europe from Turkey not only placed enormous pressure on Greece, but also sparked a wider political discussion within the European Union.
After the EU-Turkey Agreement on migrants was officially signed, various reports began to emerge about the increasing number of migrants traveling to Libya. In late March, France’s Defence Minister warned that hundreds of thousands of migrants were in Libya preparing to make the ocean crossing to Europe. On March 27, the Libyan Coast Guard prevented 600 migrants on three ships from heading out to sea. A trend began to emerge in May as Libya become the centre of even more people smuggling operations. On April 20, witnesses reported that up to 500 people may have died when an overcrowded ship sank off the Libyan coast near Tobruk. A smaller scale tragedy occurred on April 29-30 when an estimated 80 migrants downed after their ship sank near off the Libyan coast.
There is a prominent difference between migrants crossing from Libya and Turkey. Most of the migrants from Libya are predominantly from Somalia and sub-Saharan African. Compared to Turkey, the Libyan state is weak and highly fractured. This would make any attempted EU deal with Libya (similar to the current one with Turkey) very difficult. Though the Italian Coast Guard has made rescuing migrants a priority, search-and-rescue is still extremely challenging. The Libyan Coast Guard, which should be a close partner in addressing the issue, lacks leadership, equipment and trained personnel. As the media coverage returns to Libya, one thing is almost certain. Large, overcrowded vessels making the long journey to Italian territory will likely result in many more tragedies over the months to come.
The Egyptian army has reported that Egypt and France began Sunday joint manoeuvres in the Mediterranean in which French Rafale warplanes, purchased by Cairo last year, are taking part.
According to the Egyptian army, the “Ramses 2016” military and naval exercise is being held off the coast of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and are expected to last for several days. Paris announced the manoeuvres on Tuesday, stating that the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which is being used to launch airstrikes on the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq, would also take part. At the time, the French Defense Ministry indicated that the drill is aimed at “sharing our expertise with the Egyptian military…one of our main Middle East partners.” Meanwhile the Egyptian army has disclosed that a French multi-mission frigate, which was purchased by Cairo last year, would also take part in the drill along with Rafale combat jets and F-16 warplanes.
In 2015, Cairo signed a multi-billion euro deal in order to purchase from France 24 Rafale fighters, of which six have already been delivered. On 19 December 2015, the Charles de Gaulle carrier took command in the Gulf of the naval continent operating as part of the international coalition fighting IS.
The French-Egyptian manoeuvres are taking place amidst Western concerns over the growing influence of IS in Libya, which borders Egypt.
Italians Kidnapped In Libya Arrive Back In Italy as Reports Surface Over Possible Operation to Rescue ThemMarch 9, 2016 in Libya
On 6 March, two Italians kidnapped last July in Libya returned to Italy amidst growing questions over why two others snatched with them were killed.
Gino Pollicardo, 55, and Filippo Calcagno, 65, were met by relieved relatives at Rome’s Ciampino aiport in the early hours and were whisked away in order to be debriefed by Italy’s foreign ministry and intelligence services. They were amongst four employees of Italian construction company Bonatti who were kidnapped in the Mellitah region west of Tripoli in July.
On Thursday, 3 March, the Italian Foreign Ministry reported that two Italian civilians held hostage might have died in a gun battle that occurred in the western Libyan city of Sabratha. On Wednesday, 2 march, Libyan security forces disclosed that they had killed seven suspected Islamic State (IS) fighters in raid on a military hideout in Sabratha. They later released photographs of two Western men who also apparently died during the attack. In a statement, the Italian Foreign Ministry disclosed that the men might be two of the four employees of Italian construction company Bonatti who were kidnapped in the north African country last July. It named the possible victims as Fasuto Piano, 60, and Salvatore Failla, 47, adding that further checks were being carried out.
On Friday, 4 March, the remaining two Italian civilians were freed, just 48 hours after two fellow captives were allegedly executed by IS militants. The families of Pollicardo and Calcagno confirmed that the pair had been released, with a spokesman for security forces in Sabratha disclosing that the two men were released during a raid early on Friday, adding, “(they) were found alive during a raid by the local fighters against one of the hideouts of Islamic State in Sabratha.
Since their release however Italian media reports have since suggested that all four had been close to being freed, before plans went awry. Italian media reports have indicated that Piano and Failla, who had been separated from Pollicardo and Calcagno, had been in an IS convoy that was attacked by militiamen from Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn), which is the armed wing of the non-recognized government based in Tripoli.
While the murders have increased pressure in Italy for the country to deploy Special forces to Libya, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has cautioned that any intervention would first need parliament’s approval and that Rome would not be rushed. That sentiment was echoed on 6 Mach by Italy’s Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who stated in an interview with Il Sole 24 Ore daily that “we need to avoid Libya sinking into chaos where tragic episodes like this one involving our hostages can proliferate.” He noted however that “it must be clear that there are no apparent shortcuts, muscular displays. Its true, time is short, but thee is no quick war at our door,” adding, “the government is aware of the errors of the past and is working to create the conditions for stability in Libya.”
The so-called Islamic State (IS) group, which was targeted by a United States air strike in Libya on Friday 19 February 2016, moved into the North African country in 2014 in the chaos that followed the ouster of dictator Moamer Kadhafi. In recent months, the militant group has captured a city in Libya and has become yet another player in the lawless country, where rival governments and militias are battling for control of territory and major oil reserves. IS’ desires to expand into Libya have prompted international concern, with the US increasingly placing its focus on preventing IS from spreading further into the southern regions of Libya and into the Sahara region of Africa.
- 19 November – The US State Department says it is “concerned” by reports that radical extremists with avowed ties to IS are destabilizing eastern Libya, having already seized vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.
- News reports emerge that the eastern coastal city of Derna is becoming an IS stronghold.
- 27 December – A car bomb explodes outside the diplomatic security building in Tripoli. The bomb, which was claimed by IS, does not cause any causalities.
- 8 January – IS claims to have killed two Tunisian journalists, Sofiene Chourabi and Nadhir Ktari, who went missing in September 2014.
- 27 January – IS claims responsibility for an attack on Tripoli’s luxury Corinthia Hotel, which killed nine people.
- 15 February – IS releases a video depicting the beheading of twenty-one Coptic Christians, who all but one were Egyptians. The militant groups says that the jihadists firmed the video in January. Egypt carried out air strikes on IS in Derna.
- 20 February – IS claims responsibility for suicide bombings in Al-Qoba, which is located near Derna. The bombings killed 44 people, with the militant group stating that the attacks are to avenge losses in the air strikes.
- 19 April – A new video emerges depicting the execution of 28 Christians who were originally from Ethiopia.
- 9 June – IS announces that it has captured the city of Sirte, which is located east of Tripoli. IS had already controlled the city’s airport.
- 12 July – The group acknowledges that it has been pushed out of Derna after several weeks of fierce fighting with members of the town’s Mujahedeen Council.
- 11 August – Heavy fighting erupts in Sirte between residents and IS militants, with dozens of people reported dead.
- 13 November – The United States bombs IS leaders in Libya for the first time and states that it killed Abu Nabil, an Iraqi also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al-Zubaydi. Libyan officials identify him as the head of IS in Derna.
- 4 December – France announces that it carried out reconnaissance flights over Libya in November, notably at Sirte, adding that it plans to carry out other flights.
- 4 January – IS launches an offensive in a bid to seize oil terminals in Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra, which lie in an “oil crescent” along the coast.
- 7 January – A suicide truck bombing at a police school in Zliten, which is located east of Tripoli, kills more than fifty people, effectively becoming the worst attack to occur since the 2011 revolution. A second attack kills six at a checkpoint in Ras Lanuf. Both are claimed by IS.
- 19 February – A US air strike on a jihadist training camp near Sabratha, west of Tripoli, kills 41 people, with officials disclosing that a senior IS operative behind last year’s deadly attacks in Tunisia was probably killed in the strike. Serbian official announce that two Serbian diplomatic officials, who were being held hostage since November 2015, were also killed in the airstrike.
On 18 February, the United States Department of Homeland Security announced that the US has added Libya, Somalia and Yemen as “countries of concern” under its visa waiver programme. The three additional nations join Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria as countries that are subject to restrictions for those seeking to travel to the US. The move will effectively make US visa procedures more stringent for those individuals who have visited these countries in the past five years.
The new restrictions were imposed under a law that was passed in the wake of the November 2015 attacks in Paris, France, which were attributed to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. According to the new regulations, citizens of US allies who previously had been able to travel to the US without first obtaining a visa will now have to apply to US consulates for such visas if they have travelled to those designated countries in the past five years. The Homeland Security Department has disclosed that the new requirements will not automatically affect nationals from visa-waiver countries who also are dual nationals of Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The department did note however that under the new procedures, the Homeland Security secretary can waive the more stringent visa requirements on a case-by-case basis, adding that such waives would primarily be available to journalists or individuals travelling on behalf of international organizations of humanitarian groups.
The latest visa waiver restrictions were imposes as US agencies sharpen their focus on the threat posed by Islamist foreign fighters and seek to make it more difficult for them to take advantage of the US visa waiver programme. Under the current programme, citizens of thirty-eight, mainly European countries, are allowed to travel to the US for up to ninety days without a visa. Prior to travelling to the US, citizens of visa waiver countries must register online using a US government system, known as ESTA. This system effectively gives US agencies the opportunity to check out visa waiver applicants’ backgrounds through intelligence and law enforcement data bases before giving them permission to board US-bound flights.
After the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, the US visa waiver programme came under harsh scrutiny in the US Congress as some of the militants behind the attacks were European nationals, who had become radicalized after visiting Syria and who were theoretically eligible for US visa waives. Homeland Security has disclosed that it will continue to work with the State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in order to determine whether additional countries should be added to the list.