Shots fired at sea rescuers: EU supports competing militias in Libya

A German public prosecutor’s office is investigating the shooting of the ship „Alan Kurdi“. Its crew could be caught between the fronts of two coastguards equipped and trained by different EU missions.

With the General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS) and the Libyan Coast Guard and Port Security (LCGPS), two authorities with overlapping functions exist in Libya. The Ministry of Interior Coast Guard is a law enforcement agency operating within the 12-mile zone and along the coast, while the Ministry of Defence Coast Guard is responsible for territorial waters.

In a „marine strategy“, the Libyan unity government in Tripoli intends to reorganise the responsibilities of LCGPS and GACS. The two responsible ministries are supported in these efforts by the European Union in a „Maritime Sub-Working Group on Libya“ (MSWG). Central actors are the military mission EUNAVFOR MED, which cooperates with the Ministry of Defence, and the EUBAM Libya police mission, in which the EU cooperates with the Libyan Ministry of the Interior.

Dispute over criminal prosecution and port security

The core of the reform of the maritime security sector is the pursuit of smuggling and irregular migration on the high seas, which is taken over by the LCGPS. However, the GACS is responsible for criminal prosecution. Another point of contention is port security, which is taken over by both authorities.

The attack on „Alan Kurdi“ 26th October (Sea-Eye).

On 26 October, armed Libyan militias attacked the German rescue ship „Alan Kurdi“ during a mission. The crew of two speedboats with Libyan emblems had threatened the rescuers outside the twelve-mile zone and fired shots into the air and at the water.

On behalf of the public prosecutor’s office in Hamburg, the German Federal Police is now investigating in this case. Hamburg is the home port of the „Alan Kurdi“. However, the competence of the public prosecutor’s office there results from the fact that Hamburg is usually responsible for „foreign offences in the area of the sea“ with German involvement. According to media reports, the Libyan attackers belong to the maritime police in Zuwara. This refers to the GACS. The sea rescuers could thus be caught between the fronts of the security sector reform promoted by the EU in Libya.

Libyan Coast Guard and Port Security (LCGPS)

The LCGPS is part of the Navy and is responsible for the open sea outside the twelve mile zone. It takes care of border and fisheries control, monitors environmental pollution and provides sea rescue services. It is thus the competent authority that implements all related agreements in its waters in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The administrative structure of the LCGPS (EEAS).

Almost 3,400 people belong to LCGPS, a large part of them were taken over from fighting militias after the revolution in 2012 and have not been trained. None of the LCGPS training centres is operational. The Coast Guard initially had four patrol ships, four speedboats and three small fibreglass boats. Other ships have since been donated by the Italian government and to some extent already been delivered.

According to an EU document, the LCGPS headquarter is located 20 kilometres from Tripoli in the port city of Sidi Bladi, while its operational centre is located in the capital at the Abu Sitta naval base. Along the Mediterranean coast of around 1,700 kilometre, six sectors and 50 local stations are supervised there, while other sectors in the east of the country are under the control and command of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.

The Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), which is required for the coordination a sea rescue zone, is also operated by LCGPS in Tripoli and is therefore under the control of a military authority. It was only two years ago that the Libyan Tripoli government gave the coordinates of its sea rescue zone to the International Maritime Organisation. The MRCC is financially supported by the EU and set up by the Italian coastguard. Its completion was several times delayed and now scheduled for 2020.

The LCGPS is also a member of the Libyan Vessel Traffic Coordination Center (VTC) for international maritime traffic. It is also connected to the Ministries of Oil, Agriculture/Fisheries, Transport and the Environment. The centre does not have the usual system for coordinating shipping, which uses radar equipment or video cameras in ports or along the coast.

General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS)

The tasks and competencies of LCGPS overlap with those of GACS. The police coastguard is commanded by the Ministry of the Interior. Like the LCGPS, it is responsible for port security and cooperates with the Ministry of Transport.

The GACS headquarters is explained to be located in Tajoura, 32 kilometres from Tripoli. The move to Tripoli was planned but not completed last year. There are ten sectors for the police coastguard along the Libyan coast, and there are 55 stations which, according to the EU Foreign Service, are „simple facilities“.

The administrative structure of the GACS (EEAS).

In total, GACS employs almost 3,700 people, 90% of whom, like LCGPS, are former militias and were affiliated to the Ministry of the Interior after Gaddafi’s fall. The two GACS training centres have been out of operation since the civil war of 2011.

Two years ago, the Foreign Service reported that the GACS was equipped with three patrol vessels and five patrol boats, although almost all of them were at that time in Tunisian shipyards for repair. The Tripoli and Zuwara sites each had only one patrol boat. Two of the ships repaired in Tunisia are now said to be stationed in a new headquarters in the port of Khoms.

Until 1992, the GACS was only responsible for a coastal strip three nautical miles wide, in a new law the area of responsibility was extended to 12 nautical miles. In addition, the GACS controls the shoreside coast up to 30 kilometres inland, but has few patrol cars for this purpose.

The GACS has law enforcement powers which it assumes, among other things, to combat irregular migration and human trafficking. GACS’s most important cooperation partner is the Italian Ministry of the Interior, which, for example, conducted training courses for more than 100 naval officers in Italy and Tunisia in spring and autumn 2017. The Tunisian Ministry of the Interior has also trained a number of GACS members.

The GACS is also the only authority involved in the Italian-Libyan „Joint Operational Room for Combatting Illegal Immigration and Smuggling“, which is one of the recipients of assistance from the EU Emergency Relief Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF).

Training and equipment by EU police mission

Already before the revolution in 2011, LCGPS worked together with Italy’s Guardia di Finanza in joint patrols and training on board Italian ships. From 2014 the EU police mission EUBAM had trained parts of the coastguard, from 2015 the military mission EUNAVFOR MED took over in two „training packages“, another is to follow. According to the EU military mission, 550 members of the LCGPS have since been trained in various capabilities, operational missions and the administration of a coastguard. De facto, however, it is currently only carrying out sea rescue tasks. According to LCGPS, it has already brought around 7,000 people back to Libya this year.

Since 2014, the EU mission EUBAM has also supported the coastal police. In the summer of 2017, the GACS, the Italian Ministry of the Interior and EUBAM identified further areas for cooperation. According to the Foreign Service, EUBAM also ensured admission to the European Coast Guard Cooperation Network, which was founded by Frontex in 2016 and in which Libya is involved as one of four non-EU states.

GACS members trained by Italian police and Frontex. (EUBAM Libya)

In March 2018, EUBAM, the Italian Ministry of the Interior and Frontex started another training project for the coastal police. The project started with the development of a concept for the training of GACS members, including law enforcement, search and rescue operations and maritime surveillance. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR announced their intention to support the pilot project with technical experts. A first meeting took place in Tunis at the end of October 2018 and the training of 21 police officers was carried out in Rome in January 2019. According to the German Federal Foreign Office, the course contents included sea rescue, „maritime operations“, „crime scene work“, communication and interrogations.

Under the leadership of the Dutch Gendarmerie, other members of the GACS, the LCGPS and the Libyan criminal police were instructed in the control of documents. Further measures within the framework of the EUTF’s „Integrated Border and Migration Management in Libya“ project are to follow.

Administrative Agreement between EUNAVFOR MED and EUBAM

EUBAM is also a member of the steering committee of the project „Support for Integrated Border and Migration Management in Libya“ (SIBMMIL), carried out by the Italian Ministry of the Interior and financed by the European Commission with EUR 46 million. Other partners are the Foreign Service, EUNAVFOR MED and individual member states. On 5 February 2018, EUNAVFOR MED and EUBAM signed an administrative agreement to this effect.

A technical working group with the Italian Ministry of the Interior and Frontex is to implement this agreement and coordinate it. Among the possible collaborations is that EUNAVFOR MED evaluates the actions of the GACS. Such a weak „Monitoring and Advising“ mechanism exists so far only for the military LCGPS.

SIBMMIL’s first objective is to strengthen the GACS and LCGPS fleets and expand their surveillance capacities. This also includes the provision of equipment. In January and February 2018, Italy handed over three repaired patrol boats to the GACS, with a further three to follow. Libya is also the addressee of the EU project „EU4Border Security“, which aims to „building trust“ and promote „Integrated Border Management“ between countries in the southern neighbourhood and Frontex.

EU supports Libyan maritime strategy

Two years ago, the government in Tripoli began unbundling the responsibilities of LCGPS and GACS. This „Maritime Strategy“ also deals with the responsibility for law enforcement in international waters, which is to be given to the LCGPS as well. At its headquarters in Tripoli, the LCGPS hosts regular coordination meetings with GACS. It negotiates procedures and tasks related to irregular migration.

Also two years ago, the Tripoli government agreed the coordinates of its sea rescue zone with neighbouring governments in Italy, Malta and Greece and finally reported them to the International Maritime Organisation. Because the responsible LCGPS cannot control this SAR zone from its own resources, however, the EU offers appropriate assistance.

How the EU wants to connect Libya to EUROSUR (Frontex).

As part of the European Border Surveillance System EUROSUR, Frontex observes the Libyan coast by means of satellite and aerial photographs, according to the External Action Service. This information could be made available to the Libyan authorities as part of the European control system „Seahorse“ for the Mediterranean. To this end, Libya would have to set up a national contact point for receiving the data, where all Libyan authorities involved in border management would cooperate and communicate.

The connection of Libya to „Seahorse Mediterranean“ was planned for the end of 2019. The LCGPS is working together with the Spanish Guardia Civil for this purpose. As part of the EUROSUR Fusion Centre, Frontex is already transmitting weather data to LCGPS. Communication takes place via the SMART platform, which the Italian military operates for EUNAVFOR MED.

EU interference promotes conflicts

The EU’s support for the reorganisation of the GACS and LCGPS also means that it will fuel the conflict among the partly hostile militias that have been integrated into the two coastguards since 2012. Ministers with whom EUBAM or EUNAVFOR MED cooperate are repeatedly caught in the crossfire and thus jeopardise the implementation of agreements. This applies, for example, to the massacre of Brak Shati in 2017, after which the Libyan Defence Minister was suspended.

In July 2017, the Al Nawassi Brigade, considered one of the leading security guarantors of the unity government, attacked and took over GACS headquarters after disputes at the Ministry of the Interior. The Foreign Service interprets this as a sign of the weak assertiveness of the official central institutions. At that time, the GACS and EUBAM had only just decided to cooperate more closely. During the fighting, parts of the GACS equipment were destroyed, and many staff members of the headquarters also had to leave the authority.

But there is also trouble with leading figures such as the head of GACS, Brigadier General Tariq Shanbour. He is not actually a member of the coastal police, but according to EU documents employed and paid by the Libyan National Office for Interpol. The coastal police he leads are themselves accused of involvement in human smuggling.

Shanbour, on the other hand, claims that the Libyan state is exposed to a disinformation campaign. He sees the country also a victim of foreign intervention, by which he means the sea rescue organisations. Similarly, Ayob Amr Ghasem, the head of LCGPS, attacks the sea rescuers in a brute manner. According to him, they would „wage awar“ against Libya.

Image: EUBAM-training given by Italian autorities to the Libyan GACS (EEAS).