Apr 18, 3:36 PM EDT

EU nations seek ways to boost unity government in Libya

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EU nations seek ways to boost unity government in Libya

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BRUSSELS (AP) -- European Union nations are seeking out ways to boost the fledgling U.N.-backed national unity government in Libya and even consider moving their naval mission into territorial waters on request to stamp out illegal migration from the north African nation and save lives at sea.

In a common statement after a teleconference with Prime Minister-designate Fayez Serraj late Monday, the 28 EU foreign ministers said they will weigh boosting its Sophia naval operation close to Libya "by enhancing its capacity to disrupt the business model of human smugglers and trafficking networks and to contribute to broader security in support to the legitimate Libyan authorities."

The text didn't specifically mention entering Libyan waters, but EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini suggested what advantages such a move could have. She said that operating only in international waters in the Mediterranean over the past half-year, Sophia has already saved 13,000 lives, arrested 68 smuggling suspects and neutralized 104 vessels as thousands crossed to enter the EU.

"Obviously we could do even more, especially in cases where we see people dying at sea inside the Libyan territorial waters," Mogherini said.

The discussions come amid heightened diplomatic activity in the North African nation, which has often been lawless over the past half-decade.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was the latest EU official to travel to Libya on Monday after his counterparts from Germany and France had done so over the weekend in a concerted effort to boost the authority of Serraj.

He was taken under tight security to the heavily protected naval base where the Serraj's administration is struggling to establish its authority. He said Britain supported Serraj's efforts to "restore peace and stability to the whole of Libya."

Hammond announced a new 10 million pound ($14 million) cash infusion to help the new administration "strengthen political institutions, the economy, security and justice."

The EU reiterated its commitment of 100 million euros ($115 million) in aid.

The West is hoping the new government will unify Libyans and help the country battle a surging Islamic State affiliate.

Libya descended into chaos after the 2011 death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, with Islamic State group-linked militants gaining in strength as two rival governments grappled for control. One, based in Tripoli, was backed by Islamist militias, while another in eastern Libya was internationally recognized.

The activity in Libya comes at a time when the Balkan Route for migrants into Europe's heartland has been largely closed and fears are increasing that crossings from Libya, with inevitable sinkings, will become much more commonplace again.

The EU's border agency said Monday the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Italy more than doubled last month.

Frontex said in a statement that almost 9,600 migrants attempted the crossing, one of the most perilous sea voyages for people seeking sanctuary or jobs in Europe. The figure is more than four times the 2,283 people who set out in March 2015.


Lorne Cook contributed to this report.

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