Italy to bolster patrols after migrant disasters
5 ships, drones, aircraft to stop Med being 'sea of death'14 October, 20:14
(ANSA) - Rome, October 14 - Premier Enrico Letta met ministers on Monday to launch a major Italian "air and naval package" aimed at averting more disasters in the southern Mediterranean, with over 500 feared dead in two migrant wrecks so far this month.
"It is intolerable that the Mediterranean should be a sea of death," Letta said after meeting with defence, interior and navy chiefs.
"We have launched operation Mare Nostrum (Latin for 'our sea', what the Romans called the Med)," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, "to mark a sea change in coping with these continual tragedies".
"Mare Nostrum will be a significant deterrent for those who think they can act with impunity in human trafficking," the interior minister said.
Rescued migrants would not necessarily be brought to Italy, he said.
"This will be evaluated on the basis of the place where the rescue takes place".
Alfano said the operation would essential pay for itself because the cost would be split among the competent ministries and "we have to think about what the huge cost would be if we did not put this plan into action".
Defence Minister Mario Mauro said Mare Nostrum, marshalling five ships - including the huge amphibious transport ship San Marco - and an unspecified number of drones and aircraft, would be "a military and humanitarian operation strengthening surveillance and rescue forces at sea to increase safety levels for human lives".
"We will use for the first time an amphibious craft with the capacity to exercise command and control, with long-range helicopters, hospital capacity, and ample space for rescued migrants," Mauro said, adding that the San Marco will be ready to go into action on October 18.
"We will have four other Navy ships: two patrol boats and two frigates.
"We will also use drones as well as helicopters with special optical and infra-red instruments," Mauro said. The operation would set a "strong and clear example," Mauro said, in the first substantive implementation of the EU's Frontex agency's new southern border policy, Eurosur.
Alfano said "what we are doing is in addition to Frontex's task - and Frontex must do more itself". "We are ready to play our part,' said Navy spokesman Alessandro Busonero.
"The chief of staff has already provided for the measures already in force to be boosted after last Friday.
"Right now the patrol vessel Libra, the frigate Espero and the corvette Chimera are patrolling the sea, with a helicopter and pilot and the San Marco regiment on board".
The official death toll from a migrant-boat disaster on Friday is 38 after the body of a three-year-old child was recovered, but 150-250 more may be be missing after a boat thought to be carrying over 400 people capsized between the Sicilian island of Lampedusa and Malta.
There were 212 survivors.
On Sunday six bodies were recovered from the October 3 boat wreck off Lampedusa, raising the death toll from that disaster to 364. Nevertheless, more boats packed with refugees with nothing to lose continue to arrive in Lampedusa, the main port of entry into Europe for migrants smuggled by boat from Libya or Tunisia.
The government is organising the new 'safe sea' mission independently in response to the migrant crisis.
But it is also calling on the European Union to provide more assistance, stressing that Lampedusa is the border of the whole continent, not just of Italy. Letta said he will make the case for more assistance at a summit of EU leaders October 24-25. "Everything should be ready between Monday and Tuesday (for the safe sea mission). It will be an all-Italian initiative which will be in addition to existing European initiatives like Frontex,' Mauro stressed.
"We want Europe to understand clearly that we want a voice in the matter - we don't want to disengage, we want to be more involved. "This way we will be able to ask the EU to do the same".
The minister added that the objective is to "boost three-fold our presence with men and means in the southern area of the Mediterranean for a military-humanitarian mission with the aim of containing the current crisis which is partly due to the 'non-state' situation of Libya".
Mauro admitted the cost of the operation has not been estimated yet and that talks are focusing on avoiding "an excessive expenditure and to provide for the necessary (financial) coverage". "The problem is not how much it costs - it is necessary to do it to confront the ongoing humanitarian emergency," the minister said.
He said Italy was already spending 1.5 million euros a month on migrant-rescue efforts, a figure which will "inevitably rise".
The migrant emergency was high on the agenda of Rome talks Monday between Letta and Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen.
The two countries said they would work jointly and with EU border control agency FRONTEX on the plight of migrants at sea.
"We discussed the need for closer contact on the EU level to reinforce FRONTEX, and we also talked about bilateral aid from Finland", Katainen told reporters after meeting with Letta.
"It is good news that we want to work together to change European policies to make FRONTEX more effective", Letta said. "The conclusion we arrived at in order to help Italy immediately is also good news, because it shows there is solidarity among European countries".
The Italian government is in talks to reform its so-called Bossi-Fini anti-immigration law. "We are at an epochal change in immigration, and this requires a radical change in legislation and of approach on the national and European level", Letta went on.
"But we can't wait for institutions and the European Parliament to go through their process when there are lives at stake. We must act right away, and this is why the government has decided on a humanitarian mission," the Italian premier concluded.