Embattled Libyan coastguard struggles to stop migrants

During a recent 45-minute afternoon patrol off the shore of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, four coastguard personnel without life jackets operated a small inflatable boat as it bounced across choppy waters. "This area here is where smugglers have engaged us with weapons," said Abdul-Salaam Gritly, pilot of the vessel, as he gestures toward the beach off the coast of the west Tripoli neighbourhood of Gergarish.

The Libyan coastguard relies on a fleet of a dozen or so small, inflatable rafts with limited room for passengers and a recommended range of no more than five nautical miles to stop the hundreds of thousands of African and Arab migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to southern Europe. Western powers destroyed much of the north African country's naval fleet in the 2011 war to unseat Muammer Gaddafi and the four large search-and-rescue boats that survived Nato's onslaught are still in Italy for maintenance.

Libyan officials say European leaders frustrated at the vast war-torn country's efforts to stop smuggling should look at their own mistakes and policies, which they say have stymied attempts to stop migrants. An increase in western aerial drone and helicopter flights and the fear of European air strikes - now no longer likely - terrifies Libya's coastguard personnel.

"We go out at night and there's no communication with the other forces," said Lt Col Mohamed Dandi, in charge of the coastguard division that oversees Tripoli and its environs, where most of the smugglers set off for Italy from beaches at midnight. "We feel intimidated because of drones and helicopters. We don't have bulletproof vests and we don't have night vision. We depend on our hearing mostly. My men could be subject to gunfire or disease. Why should we risk that? My people are more valuable than that."

Libyan officials estimate that the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean has tripled compared with last year, spurred on by the collapse of security institutions after the 2011 war and a year-long civil war. The wave of migration has spurred a humanitarian crisis, with hundreds drowning at sea and upended European politics amid fears of immigration.

The civil war has complicated Libya's efforts to protect its own shores. An internationally recognised, elected government is quartered in the country's east while an Islamist-leaning authority rules over much of the west, where smugglers launch most of the boats. Shortages of diesel curtail coastguard activities, and war has diverted financial and political resources from border protection toward fighting other Libyans. UN-sponsored talks to end the conflict continue periodically in Rabat, Algiers and other cities.

While acknowledging the impact of the civil war on their attempts to stop migrants, many Libyans also blame the west for failing to help Libya get back on its feet after the Nato-led war to overthrow Gaddafi.

Col Ayoub Amr Qassem, spokesman for Libya's coastguard, estimated that Nato caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the country's naval fleet, including frigates, patrol boats and cutters that constituted about 30 boats or 70 per cent of the country's sea forces. "We had some essential naval vehicles and equipment that we used for our work," he said. "They were the spinal cord of our ability to protect our shores. Unfortunately, they were destroyed in Nato air strikes. We don't have the ability to combat not only smuggling of people but illegal fishing and smuggling of contraband. All of these are draining the resources of the Libyan people." Cost aside, it takes years for new frigates to be built and delivered, he added.

Offers of help from Europe sometimes fail to materialise, Libyan officials say. Italy had offered a training scheme for 87 coastguard personnel to use the four 32-metre search-and-rescue ships it was refurbishing. But it then said it could not provide visas. "The civil war is a big excuse that they keep using," said Col Qassem. He and others say Italy is withholding the boats. "They say form a national unity government and we will give you the boats." The Italian foreign and defence ministries declined to comment.

The boats held in Italy are significantly bigger than the ones the coastguard relies on. The coastguard mostly uses a set of Sillinger semi-rigid inflatable 7-metre and 12-metre, high-speed patrol boats as well as retrofitted fishing and tugboats, designed for ranges of five nautical miles, though they frequently brave rough seas for up to four times that distance.

Increasingly, Libyans are angry at Europe's seeming unwillingness to help. "We are struggling for Italy's sake," said Jamal Zubia, a spokesman for the Tripoli authority, called the National Salvation government. "Why are we doing this? We should do like Gaddafi did and hire boats to take them to Italy. He brought Europe its knees."

Additional reporting by James Politi in Rome

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