Italy shuts embassy in Libya, appeals to UN as thousands flee war-torn country for Europe

Migrants at the Sicilian harbour of Pozzallo, February 15, 2015 (Reuters / Antonio Parrinello)
The Italian embassy in Tripoli has been closed and its staff evacuated due to the raging military conflict in Libya. It comes as the Italian coast guard took part in a massive rescue mission of over 2,000 migrants fleeing from the Libyan coast.

“The deteriorating situation in Libya made it necessary to close [the embassy],” Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said on Sunday. The Foreign Ministry added that the embassy staff of about 100 were being transferred back to Italy by ship.

On Sunday, the Italian coast guard rescued nearly 2,200 migrants who became stranded in 12 boats between the Libyan coast and the Italian island of Lampedusa. During the operation, four smugglers armed with Kalashnikovs took a speed boat to where the rescue operation was taking place and threatened the coast guard, Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said.

READ MORE: Dome of fire: Libya’s largest oil field sabotaged, company releases footage

The smugglers tried to negotiate to get the migrants’ boats back, Lupi added. “Another terrible development in the horrendous trafficking of men, women and children in the Mediterranean.”

Eventually, three of the smugglers jumped onto one of the empty boats and took off. At that point, all the migrants were safely transported to the coast guard’s vessel.

Libya and Italy only have a narrow stretch of the Mediterranean Sea between them, and the number of traffickers has recently surged, along with fees of up to $2,000 for the passage across.

Reuters / Goran Tomasevic

Violence in Libya has recently intensified, with extremist groups including the Islamic State (IS, previously ISIS/ISIL) being increasingly active in the country. On Sunday, ISIS militants released their latest graphic video, showing what they claim are the executions of 21 Egyptian Copts kidnapped in Libya.

READ MORE: Egypt eyes revenge after ISIS executes 21 Copts, releases video

The ongoing conflict that stems from the 2011 Libyan civil war, in which Western-backed rebels toppled the country’s ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, has direct implications for Europe. Italy has been one of the first countries directly affected, with thousands of migrants trying to escape the fighting by boats.

On Friday, the Italian coast guard rescued 600 migrants who were trying to use six dinghies to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Last week, over 300 migrants tragically drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, after overcrowded rubber dinghies collapsed and sank during a storm.

Members of Libyan pro-government forces in Benghazi on February 1, 2015 (Reuters / Esam Omran Al-Fetori)

It has been estimated that more than 3,200 people died in 2014 while trying to reach the Italian coast via boats from North Africa. The UN named the crossing as the most dangerous in the world.

Jihadist threat for Europe?

Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti told Il Messaggero newspaper in an interview on Sunday that the risk of jihadists coming to Italy by boat “could not be ruled out.”

Pinotti also confirmed Italy's readiness to lead a UN coalition against the advance of jihadists in Libya. “The risk is imminent, we cannot wait any longer. Italy has national defense needs and cannot have a caliphate ruling across the shores from us,” she said.

READ MORE: Intel shows Libyans feared Al-Qaeda fighters were armed by NATO in Gaddafi ouster

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – who has long been pressing for UN intervention in Libya and has been urging the EU to help with the influx of migrants – also pushed for stronger international involvement to resolve the conflict.

“We have told Europe and the international community that we have to stop sleeping,” Renzi told RAI TV on Saturday. “The problems cannot all be left to us because we are the first, the closest, the people who pick up the boats.”