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August 21, 2017

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Libya defends banning foreign ships from 'search and rescue' zone

TRIPOLI - The Libyan navy said its order to foreign ships to stay out of a coastal "search and rescue" zone for illegal migrants complies with international laws.

"All countries have their own search zones. The decision was taken according to international laws and regulations," Ayoub Qasim, the spokesman for the Libyan navy forces, said.

"This is within the work of the Libyan navy. We have notified the United Nations agencies," he told dpa without further details.

Libya is the gateway to Europe for people fleeing war, persecution and poverty. Hundreds of thousands have made the dangerous journey across Africa and the Mediterranean towards Italy in recent years.

Libya announced last week it was establishing a "search and rescue" zone off its coast. It ordered vessels belonging to non-governmental organizations (NGOs] that patrol the area to stay out.

Qasim accused some NGOs of having links with people-smuggling rings. He claimed the smugglers are tipped off by those NGOs ahead of Libyan coast guard missions.

"We do not have evidence. But it is strange that there are no migration boats when Libyan navy patrols are at sea although vessels of these organizations are there."

The zone stretches off the capital Tripoli in the west of the country for 148 kilometres to the north, according to Qasim.

Qasim's remarks come after announcements from several charities that they are suspending their search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean due to security risks.

The German aid group Sea Eye, which was founded at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 and operates two boats, said Sunday that it was also suspending its migrant-rescue missions.

"Continuing our rescues is not currently possible under these circumstances. We can no longer justify this to our crews," founder Michael Busch Heuer said.

Save the Children said they were docking its vessel in Malta "as a result of issues raised by the Libyan Navy, which pose uncertainty for our response."

Doctors Without Borders announced a temporary halt to its mission on Saturday.

Libya has descended into chaos since the 2011 revolt that toppled long-time dictator Moamer Gaddafi. This lawlessness has made it the main springboard for often deadly migrant voyages.

Aid groups have blasted the European Union for supporting naval missions that pick up the migrants at sea and return them to Libya.

International charity Oxfam warned last week that migrants are subject to torture, slave labour and sexual violence in Libya.

But the EU border agency Frontex has accused charities of unintentionally encouraging migrant departures and making life easier for smugglers by carrying out rescues closer and closer to the Libyan shore.

The NGOs say more people would drown if they did not intervene, and have urged the EU to open legal channels of migration so that people would no longer have incentives to risk their lives on dangerous sea journeys.

So far this year, the UN-backed International Organization for Migration says that 2,408 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean.

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