Archive for May 4, 2017


April 13, 2017

DOLJEVAC, Serbia (AP) — Fatima Bakhshi stays close to her mother and two sons, afraid she might lose them as they trudge through the cold Balkan darkness. The smuggler they’ve paid to escort them safely into Western Europe orders them to squeeze into a car with more than a dozen other migrants.

Bakhshi, the boys in her lap, is crammed so tightly in the back that she can barely breathe. The driver swerves and she yells at him to stop. Other migrants snap at her to keep quiet and she dozes off. All she wants is a new life with relatives in Ireland, away from a brutish husband and a controlling father back in Afghanistan.

In an instant, on a road in southern Serbia, the 26-year-old’s dream turns into a nightmare. The car hits a barrier and overturns, killing Bakhshi’s mother and another person. Bakhshi’s younger son is hurt, and she is so badly wounded that her legs must be amputated above the knees.

“I wake up in the hospital, I see I didn’t have feet, there is doctors,” Bakhshi says in broken English. “Where is my mother? Where is my feet? I am calling, crying, all the time I am crying.” Bakhshi’s tragedy highlights the dangers facing migrants — particularly women — who rely on smugglers to take them on dangerous journeys through Central and Eastern Europe in hopes of finding new lives in more prosperous countries to the west. She doesn’t remember many details of her journey and finds others too hard to talk about, including how they found the smuggler and how much they paid. The driver of the car fled and it’s not clear if he was ever found.

Tens of thousands of people remain stranded across the Balkans after countries throughout Europe last year tightened migration rules and border controls. Most are fleeing war or poverty in the Middle East or Africa.

Bakhshi fled a life of abuse in Afghanistan. When she was 16, her father pulled her out of school to marry a man 10 years her senior whom she had never seen before. She says he turned out to be a drug addict who harassed and beat her severely.

A year ago, she tried to leave her abusive husband and return to her parents’ home, but her father wouldn’t take her in. Her mother decided to help her get away. The two set off with the boys, now ages 5 and 9. Details of the journey are hazy, but Bakhshi recalls that they first went to Pakistan, then to Iran, Turkey, Greece and Macedonia. They spent eight months in a refugee camp in Greece, then were detained and pushed back to Greece once from Macedonia, before finally reaching Serbia in December.

“It’s very hard. You don’t understand because you don’t see,” Bakhshi said of the ordeal. “It’s very hard (on) my feet, walking to mountain and from Iran to Turkey. It’s very hard.” “I come here with my mother, I think I’ll be happy with my kids and then I had accident in car,” she said.

More than three months after the Dec. 29 crash, Bakhshi is now out of the hospital, staying in a small care home in the village of Doljevac, in southern Serbia. She has started a rehabilitation program that should result in prosthetic limbs. Her children are well, by her side.

Faced with her immense loss, bed-ridden and desperate, Bakhshi speaks in a hushed, low voice, smiling only at the sight of her boys playing nearby. She said her only wish remains to join her mother’s brother and other relatives in Ireland so her children can have a future in a larger family.

“I don’t want to live, I live just for my kids,” she said sadly, bowing her head. “Before I liked learning. Now it’s very hard. I just sleep.” The United Nations refugee agency in Serbia, the UNHCR, has declared Bakhshi a refugee and offered to help resettle her in an as-yet-undecided third country where she can have access to a better treatment than in impoverished Serbia. But the agency cannot guarantee it will be Ireland.

“This depends on the quotas that are at hand,” said Davor Rako, an associate protection officer for the UNHCR. “At this point in time, unfortunately, Ireland does not have a quota for UNHCR, for settlement.”

Vladimir Bogosavljevic, a psychologist with Indigo, a group for children and youth that also works with migrants, has worked with Bakhshi and her children. He said he hopes to enroll the boys in a local school, but that the family is anxious not to separate at all. Bogosavljevic appealed to “people of good will and in high places” to help Bakhshi and the boys join their relatives in Ireland because “so far that is her only wish.”

“It’s important to give her hope,” he said. Bakhshi said that for her, Ireland also means a connection to her late mother, whom she considers the only friend she’s ever had. “Always my mother helped me. Why my mother died?” she sobbed. “I had just mother in life. Why is like this, why?”

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By Andrew V. Pestano

May 2, 2017

May 2 (UPI) — The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the Syrian Democratic Forces militia is close to fully capturing the city of al-Tabqah from the Islamic State as its offensive to free Raqqa escalates.

The SOHR on Monday said the SDF and U.S. Special Forces control about 80 percent of al-Tabqah. The monitor said local mediators are working to negotiate an agreement to secure a passage for remaining Islamic State militants to travel to Raqqa to fully withdraw from al-Tabqah.

The SDF, with the help of the U.S.-led international coalition, said it captured six al-Tabqah districts on Saturday and another three on Sunday from the control of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh.

“In the last 48 hours, the ISIS defense lines have been destroyed, and [we] were able to liberate nine districts,” SDF Cmdr. Abdulqadir Hafidli said on Monday.

Hafidli said Islamic State militants have established strong defenses in the last three districts of al-Tabqah and at the Euphrates Dam.

The SDF seeks to surround and isolate Raqqa before launching an offensive to recapture the city, similar to what Iraqi security forces did in their offensive on Mosul.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2017/05/02/US-backed-Syrian-militia-close-to-full-capture-of-al-Tabqah/4051493733015/.

April 27, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — A large explosion rocked the Syrian capital early Thursday, followed by a fire near the Damascus airport, Syrian opposition activists and a monitor said. The explosion was heard across the capital, jolting residents awake, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdurrahman said. He said the explosion was reported to have happened near the Damascus airport road.

The dawn explosion was also reported by other activists’ networks but the source was unclear. Activist-operated Diary of a Mortar, which reports from Damascus, said the explosion near the airport road was followed by flames rising above the area. A pro-government site Damascus Now said the explosion was near the city’s Seventh Bridge, which leads to the airport road.

Syria is in the sixth year of a bloody civil war pitting the government of President Bashar Assad and his allies against opposition forces that has left more than 400,000 people dead. The explosion comes a day after France said that the chemical analysis of samples taken from a deadly sarin gas attack in Syria earlier this month “bears the signature” Assad’s government and shows it was responsible.

Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said France came to this conclusion after comparing samples from a 2013 sarin attack in Syria that matched the new ones. The findings came in a six-page report published Wednesday.

Russia, a close ally of Assad, denounced the report, saying the samples and the fact the nerve agent was used are not enough to prove who was behind it. The United States has also blamed Assad’s government for the April 4 attack. The Trump administration ordered the cruise missile attack on the air base and issued sanctions on 271 people linked to the Syrian agency said to be responsible for producing non-conventional weapons. Syria has strongly denied the accusations.

2017-04-26

AL-MALIKIYAH – The toll in Turkish air raids on Kurdish positions in northeastern Syria rose to 28 killed, a monitor said Wednesday, a day after Ankara said it had targeted “terrorist havens” near its border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of those killed were members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is battling the Islamic State group in northern Syria.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said 19 others were wounded in the Tuesday raids on a media center and other buildings in Al-Malikiyah, a town in Hasakeh province.

YPG spokesman Redur Khalil on Tuesday said 20 fighters were killed and 18 wounded in the Turkish strikes, which the United States said were carried out without the knowledge of a Washington-led international coalition fighting IS in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Abdel Rahman said a female Kurdish fighter was among the dead.

Turkey, which backs Syrian rebel groups and which launched a ground operation in northern Syria last year, vowed to continue acting against groups it links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

It also killed six Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq on Tuesday in an apparent accident.

The strikes underlined the complexities of the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, where twin US-backed offensives are seeking to dislodge IS from its last major urban strongholds.

They could also exacerbate tensions between Ankara and its NATO ally Washington, which sees the Kurds as instrumental in the fight against IS.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82784.

April 22, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Many don’t speak Arabic and their role in Syria is little known to the outside world, but the Chinese fighters of the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria are organized, battled-hardened and have been instrumental in ground offensives against President Bashar Assad’s forces in the country’s northern regions.

Thousands of Chinese jihadis have come to Syria since the country’s civil war began in March 2011 to fight against government forces and their allies. Some have joined the al-Qaida’s branch in the country previously known as Nusra Front. Others paid allegiance to the Islamic State group and a smaller number joined factions such as the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham.

But the majority of Chinese jihadis are with the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria, whose vast majority are Chinese Muslims, particularly those from the Turkic-speaking Uighur majority native to Xinjiang in China. Their growing role in Syria has resulted in increased cooperation between Syrian and Chinese intelligence agencies who fear those same jihadis could one day return home and cause trouble there.

The Turkistan Islamic Party is the other name for the East Turkistan Islamic Movement that considers China’s Xinjiang to be East Turkistan. Like most jihadi groups in Syria, their aim is to remove Assad’s secular government from power and replace it with strict Islamic rule. Their participation in the war, which has left nearly 400,000 people dead, comes at a time when the Chinese government is one of Assad’s strongest international backers. Along with Russia, China has used its veto power at the U.N. Security Council on several occasions to prevent the imposition of international sanctions against its Arab ally.

Beijing has blamed violence back at home and against Chinese targets around the world on Islamic militants with foreign connections seeking an independent state in Xinjiang. The government says some of them are fleeing the country to join the Jihad, although critics say the Uighurs are discriminated against and economically marginalized in their homeland and are merely seeking to escape repressive rule by the majority Han Chinese.

Abu Dardaa al-Shami, a member of the now-defunct extremist Jund al-Aqsa group, said the TIP has the best “Inghemasiyoun,” Arabic for “those who immerse themselves.” The Inghemasiyoun have been used by extremist groups such as IS and al-Qaida’s affiliate now known as Fatah al-Sham Front. Their role is to infiltrate their targets, unleash mayhem and fight to the death before a major ground offensive begins.

“They are the lions of ground offensives,” said al-Shami, who fought on several occasions alongside TIP fighters in northern Syria. Xie Xiaoyuan, China’s envoy to Syria, told reporters in November that the two countries have had normal military exchanges focused on humanitarian issues, although Chinese officials have repeatedly rejected the possibility of sending troops or weapons.

In the last year, however, Chinese and Syrian officials have begun holding regular, once-a-month high-level meetings to share intelligence o militant movements in Syria, according to a person familiar with the matter. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to reveal military secrets.

“These people not only fight alongside international terrorist forces in Syria, but also they will possibly return to China posing threat to China’s national security,” said Li Wei, terrorism expert at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations and Director of the CICIR Institute of Security and Arms Control Studies.

Rami Abdurrahman who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there are about 5,000 Chinese fighters in Syria, most of them with the TIP fighters in northern Syria who along with their families make about 20,000. Li, the terrorism expert, said Abdurrahman’s numbers are way too high, adding that he believes the number are about 300 Chinese fighters in Syria who brought with them about 700 family members.

“As the control of the passage along the borders between Turkey and Syria is being tightened, it is becoming more difficult for them to smuggle into Syria,” Li said. Syrian opposition activists and pro-government media outlets say dozens of TIP fighters have carried out suicide attacks against government forces and their allies and for the past two years have led battles mostly in the north of the country.

The suicide attackers include one known as Shahid Allah al-Turkistani. He was shown in a video released by TIP taken from a drone of an attack in which he blew himself up in the vehicle he was driving near Aleppo late last year, allegedly killing dozens of pro-government gunmen.

In 2015, members of the group spearheaded an attack on the northwestern province of Idlib and captured the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour on the edge of Assad’s stronghold of Latakia region. They reportedly damaged a church in the town and raised their black flag on top of it.

In late 2016, TIP was a main force to briefly break a government siege on the then rebel-held eastern parts of the northern city of Aleppo. The role of the Chinese jihadis in Syria was a topic that Assad spoke about last month in an interview with Chinese PHOENIX TV, saying “they know your country more than the others, so they can do more harm in your country than others.”

Unlike other rebel groups, TIP is a very secretive organization and they live among themselves, according to activists in northern Syria. They are active in parts of Idlib and in the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour, as well as the Kurdish Mountains in the western province of Latakia.

Abdul-Hakim Ramadan, a doctor who was active in Idlib province, said one of his teams was trying to enter a northwestern village to vaccinate children when TIP fighters prevented them from entering, saying only Chinese can go into the area.

Ramadan said unlike other fighters who have come to Syria, the Chinese have not merged into local communities and the language has been a major barrier.

Shih reported from Beijing.

April 16, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — The evacuation of more than 3,000 Syrians that was scheduled to take place Sunday from four areas as part of a population transfer has been postponed, opposition activists said, a day after a deadly blast that killed more than 120 people, many of them government supporters.

The reasons for the delay were not immediately clear. It came as shells fired by the Islamic State group on government-held parts of the eastern city of Deir el-Zour wounded two members of a Russian media delegation visiting the area, according to state-run Syrian news agency SANA.

Russia is a main backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian journalists enjoy wide access in government-held parts of the country. Russia’s Anna-News military news service, which employs the journalists, said one was wounded in the arm while the other suffered leg and stomach wounds. The news service said the two were evacuated adding that their condition was “satisfactory.”

The United Nations is not overseeing the transfer deal, which involves residents of the pro-government villages of Foua and Kfarya and the opposition-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani. All four have been under siege for years, their fate linked through a series of reciprocal agreements that the U.N. says have hindered aid deliveries.

Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, earlier said that 3,000 people will be evacuated from Foua and Kfarya, while 200, the vast majority of them fighters, will be evacuated from Zabadani and Madaya.

Abdurrahman and opposition activist Hussam Mahmoud, who is from Madaya, said the evacuation has been delayed. Abdurrahman said no permission was given for the evacuation to go ahead while Mahmoud said it has been delayed for “logistical reasons.”

It was not immediately clear if the evacuees feared attacks similar to Saturday’s bombing. Abdurrahman said Saturday’s blast —which hit an area where thousands of pro-government evacuees had been waiting for hours — killed 126. He said the dead included 109 people from Foua and Kfarya, among them 80 children and 13 women.

No one has claimed the attack, but both the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida-affiliated Fatah al-Sham Front have targeted civilians in government areas in the past. A wounded girl, who said she lost her four siblings in the blast, told Al-Manar TV from her hospital bed that children who had been deprived of food for years in the two villages were approached by a man in the car who told them to come and eat potato chips. She said once many had gathered, there was an explosion that tore some of the children to pieces.

Anthony Lake, UNICEF’s executive director, said in a statement Sunday that after six years of war and carnage in Syria “there comes a new horror that must break the heart of anyone who has one.” “We must draw from this not only anger, but renewed determination to reach all the innocent children throughout Syria with help and comfort,” he said.

After the blast, some 60 buses carrying 2,200 people, including 400 opposition fighters, entered areas held by rebels in the northern province of Aleppo, Abdurrahman said. More than 50 buses and 20 ambulances carrying some 5,000 Foua and Kfarya residents entered the government-held city of Aleppo, Syrian state TV said, with some of them later reaching a shelter in the village of Jibreen to the south.

U.N. relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien said he was “horrified” by the deadly bombing, and that while the U.N. was not involved in the transfer it was ready to “scale up our support to evacuees.” He called on all parties to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, and to “facilitate safe and unimpeded access for the U.N. and its partners to bring life-saving help to those in need.”

Residents of Madaya and Zabadani, formerly summer resorts, joined the 2011 uprising against President Bashar Assad. Both came under government siege in the ensuing civil war. Residents of Foua and Kfraya, besieged by the rebels, have lived under a steady hail of rockets and mortars for years, but were supplied with food and medicine through military airdrops.

Critics say the string of evacuations, which could see some 30,000 people moved across battle lines over the next 60 days, amounts to forced displacement along political and sectarian lines. In eastern Syria, an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition on the village of Sukkarieh near the border with Iraq killed eight civilians who had earlier fled violence in the northern province of Aleppo, according to Deir Ezzor 24, an activist collective, and Sound and Picture Organization, which documents IS violations.

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition had killed dozens of civilians over the past several weeks as the battle against the extremists intensifies in Syria and Iraq.

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.

May 02, 2017

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Islamic militant Hamas on Monday unveiled what had been billed as a new, seemingly more pragmatic political program aimed at ending the group’s international isolation.

With the new manifesto, Hamas rebrands itself as an Islamic national liberation movement, rather than a branch of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed by Egypt. It also drops explicit language calling for Israel’s destruction, though it retains the goal of eventually “liberating” all of historic Palestine, which includes what is now Israel.

It’s not clear if the changes will be enough to improve relations with Egypt which, along with Israel, has been enforcing a crippling border blockade against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip since the group seized the territory in 2007.

Hamas clung to hard-line positions that led to its isolation in the first place. The group reaffirmed that it will not recognize Israel, renounce violence or recognize previous interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals — the West’s long-standing conditions for dealing with Hamas.

The five-page program, a result of four years of internal deliberations, was presented at a news conference in Doha, Qatar, by Khaled Mashaal, the outgoing Hamas leader in exile. The group has said Mashaal’s replacement is to be named later this month, after the completion of secret leadership elections.

The document reflects a “reasonable Hamas, that is serious about dealing with the reality and the regional and international surroundings, while still representing the cause of its people,” said Mashaal.

A copy of the program was distributed to journalists in Gaza who followed the news conference by video link. The new platform seemed to cement the ideological divide between Hamas and its main political rival, the Fatah movement of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas drove out forces loyal to Abbas in its 2007 takeover of Gaza, a year after defeating Fatah in Palestinian parliament elections. Reconciliation efforts have failed. The Hamas manifesto was released at a time of escalating tensions between the two sides. In recent weeks, Abbas has threatened to exert financial pressure, including cutting wage payments and aid to Gaza, as a way of forcing Hamas to cede ground.

Leaders of the group have vowed they will not budge. The war of words with Hamas was seen as an attempt by Abbas to position himself as a leader of all Palestinians ahead of his first meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House on Wednesday. The U.S. president has said he would try to broker Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a peace deal, despite repeated failures over the past two decades.

In the past, Hamas has sharply criticized Abbas’ political program, which rests on setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

In its founding charter, Hamas called for setting up an Islamic state in historic Palestine, or the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, which also includes Israel. The new program for the first time raises the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines, saying it’s a “national consensus formula.” However, the wording suggests Hamas considers this to be an interim step, not a way of ending the conflict.

The document does not contain an explicit call for Israel’s destruction, but says “Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.” “There shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity,” the document says.

The Palestine Liberation Organization, now led by Abbas, exchanged letters of mutual recognition with Israel in 1993. The Hamas document said it considers armed resistance against occupation as a strategic choice and that the group “rejects any attempt to undermine the resistance and its arms.”

Over the years, Hamas has carried out shooting, bombing and rocket attacks in Israel. Since 2008, Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza have fought three cross-border wars. Abbas has been an outspoken opponent of violence, saying it undercuts Palestinian interests.

While the founding charter was filled with anti-Jewish references, the new document stresses that Hamas bears no enmity toward Jews. It says its fight is with those who occupy Palestinian lands. Mashaal is to step down as Hamas leader later this month. Two possible contenders for the No. 1 spot are Moussa Abu Marzouk, a former Hamas leader, and Ismail Haniyeh, a former top Hamas official in Gaza.

The Mashaal announcement was initially scheduled for 7 p.m. (1600 GMT) Monday, but was delayed after a Doha hotel withdrew consent at the last minute to host the Hamas news conference. Hamas scrambled to find a new venue.

Laub reported from Ramallah, West Bank.

April 18, 2017

ROME (AP) — Warm weather and calm seas usually spur smugglers to send migrants across the Mediterranean come spring. But aid groups say another timetable might be behind a weekend spike: the looming start of beefed-up Libyan coast guard patrols designed to prevent migrants from reaching Europe.

Over Easter weekend, rescue ships plucked some 8,360 people from 55 different rubber dinghies and wooden boats off Libya’s coast, Italy’s coast guard said. Thirteen bodies were also recovered. While such numbers are not unheard-of for this time of year, they come as Italy is preparing to deliver patrol boats to Libya as part of a new European Union-blessed migration deal.

Italy and Libya inked a deal in February calling for Italy to train Libyan coast guard officers and to provide them with a dozen ships to patrol the country’s lawless coasts. EU leaders hailed the accord as a new commitment to save lives and stem the flow of migrants to Europe, where the refugee influx has become a pressing political issue.

Aid groups, however, have criticized it as hypocritical and cruel, arguing that migrants who have already endured grave human rights abuses in Libya will face renewed violence, torture, sexual assault and other injustices if they are returned by the Libyan coast guard. Doctors Without Borders called it “delusional” while even the Vatican’s own Caritas charity said it was worrisome.

International Organization of Migration spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo said improved weather conditions certainly are fueling renewed flows in recent days. But he said smugglers are also telling their customers, “‘You have to hurry up and leave the country right now because otherwise in a couple of months you will be rescued by the Libyan coast guard and you will be sent back,’ which is the last things that migrants would like to do.”

The United Nations refugee agency also cited the pending arrival of Italian patrol boats as a possible cause for the weekend’s high numbers, although spokeswoman Barbara Molinario said it was too early in the season to identify trends.

“For now it’s premature, even if 8,300 in 55 operations is a high number,” Molinario said. Overall, Some 35,700 people have been rescued in the central Mediterranean route in 2017, up from 24,974 in 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said. Molinario noted that the numbers are constantly in flux and a week or two of poor weather could alter the year-on comparison. The IOM reports some 900 people are known to have died so far this year.

Some 800 people rescued over the weekend arrived in Sardinia on Tuesday, where officials struggled to find accommodation for them after some 900 were brought to the island by rescue boats last month. They hailed from Syria, Egypt and Libya, as well as more than a dozen other African countries.

The entry into force of the new Libyan patrols could heighten tensions that have already flared between the European Union and humanitarian organizations, which have assumed increasing role in rescuing migrants as their vessels tend to patrol closer to Libya’s territorial waters, and their numbers have skyrocketed in the last two years.

The European border agency Frontex has said these humanitarian aid ships in 2016 were responsible for 40 percent of all rescues, up from 5 percent a year earlier. Frontex has essentially accused them of encouraging smugglers to set migrants off in increasing numbers and on increasingly flimsy vessels, since rescue is so close at hand.

“While there is no question that saving lives is an obligation of whoever operates at sea … it seems the Libyan smugglers are taking full advantage of this fact, and they do so with impunity,” Frontex spokeswoman Izabella Cooper said.

The aid groups have denied being in cahoots with smugglers, but Catania’s chief prosecutor, Carmelo Zuccaro, testified to parliament last month about the phenomenon, in particular the funding behind the aid groups’ operations.

Cooper says there are both “push and pull” factors at play in the Libyan migration saga, with wars, poverty and famine pushing the migrants to Libya and the relative ease with which they then can reach Europe pulling them to make the risky crossing.

But behind it all is money: Europol reported that smugglers made some 5-6 billion euros in 2015, a peak year for arrivals in the EU, making it one of the most profitable activities for organized criminals in Europe. On the Libyan end, an EU military task force reported in December that Libyan coastal communities earned around 270-325 million euros a year from smuggling operations.

Trisha Thomas in Rome contributed to this report.