Russia woos Haftar, but can the Derna floods give Libyans another chance?

Moscow seized the disaster diplomacy initiative after the deadly Derna floods, with Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov arriving in eastern Libya with a promise of aid. Russia is helping Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar while seeking geostrategic payback. But the Derna tragedy has also drawn the US back into Libya, and that could be a game-changer.

On a moonless night shortly after two dams in the port city of Derna collapsed, killing thousands, a hulking Russian Ilyushin IL-76 military cargo aircraft landed at an airport near Benghazi in eastern Libya.

“Russian Defence Ministry sends logistical reinforcements, rescue & search equipment after Storm Daniel,” noted a post by a local Libyan news site days after the landing on X, formerly Twitter.

Accompanying photographs showed teams unloading aid packages from the aircraft while a military truck, draped with the flags of Russia and Libya, waits on the tarmac at Benghazi’s Benina airport.

The messaging was clear and gained momentum over the next few days: the Russian defence ministry was on the ground, providing a rapid response in eastern Libya, a region controlled by strongman Khalifa Haftar, head of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

On Sunday, September 17 – a week after “Libya’s 9/11” as the Derna disaster has been dubbed – Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov himself was in town, meeting Haftar at the strongman’s Benghazi office.

The Russian defence ministry’s No. 2 is fast becoming Moscow’s “Africa Man”, making several trips to the continent, particularly coup-hit former French colonies such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

Yevkurov was last in Libya when Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash near Moscow on August 23. Over the past few years, Wagner provided indispensable services to Haftar, securing oil wells and deploying fighters during the eastern Libyan strongman’s 2019 assault on the capital, Tripoli, in western Libya. Following the Wagner chief’s demise, Yevkurov is seen as the main organiser of the post-Prigozhin era of Russian relationships with Africa.

Read moreRussian general, master spy duo organise in Africa after Prigozhin’s demise

Just a day after Prigozhin’s death, Haftar showed that he was ahead of the intrigues in Moscow when his Benghazi media office released a photograph of the Russian deputy defence minister gifting the Libyan strongman a pistol during his visit.

Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov offers Khalifa Haftar a pistol in Benghazi on August 24, 2023. © Khalifa Khaftar media office via AFP

With its 1,700-kilometer Mediterranean coastline across from southern Europe, and its desert land borders providing a gateway to the Sahel and central Africa, Libya is considered vital to Russia’s interests across the two continents. The oil-rich North African nation is divided between the UN-recognised government administering western Libya and Haftar-controlled territory in the east.

Russia has proved to be a new, loyal ally to Haftar. But the septuagenarian Libyan strongman is not known for his geopolitical fidelity. In the course of an intrigue-packed military career, Haftar has switched sides, worked with rival powers, and managed to save his skin while amassing a fortune. The Derna disaster has repositioned him at the centre of a North African “Great Game”, with the victims of the floods in danger of turning into pawns.

Seeking docking rights for Russian warships

Russia’s outreach in eastern Libya predates the Derna disaster and has been largely opaque and shadowy.

Just two days before Yevkurov’s humanitarian trip to Benghazi, the Wall Street Journal published a report warning that Russia was seeking access for its warships in eastern Libya.

“The Russians have requested access to the ports of either Benghazi or Tobruk,” the US daily reported, citing Libyan officials and advisers. Yevkurov’s meeting with Haftar in August focused on discussing “long-term docking rights in areas he controls in the war-torn country’s east,” the newspaper added.

Prigozhin’s death and the Russian defence ministry’s efforts to fold Wagner mercenaries – including around 1,200 fighters still stationed in Haftar’s facilities – into a direct chain of command have increased the geopolitical stakes, according to Emad Baadi, nonresident senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Atlantic Council.

“It’s about securing a warm water port on the Mediterranean, at Europe and NATO’s southern flank, which has been a covert objective of Russia for quite a long time, but on which it hadn’t made inroads, partly because its presence in Libya was never made fully official, let’s say. This is slightly changing now, given the increased high profile, and nature of the visits that we’ve seen with the deputy minister of defence,” said Baadi.

Since NATO intervened in the 2011 uprising to oust Muammar Gaddafi, Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently criticised the operation and used Libya as an example of the Western military alliance’s failure.

More than a decade later, Putin is determined to turn that failure to Russia’s advantage.

“I think they are in Libya to stay, both for resource extraction and strategic positioning, from where they can basically threaten southern Europe and destabilise the security of southern Europe,” said a Western diplomat who declined to be named. “Putin wants to undermine democracy in Europe and what better way to do that than to use Libya as a launching pad for cynically sending illegal migrants into southern Europe. I think this is a medium-to-long-term strategic plan.”

From Tartus to Tobruk, or Benghazi

Russia’s efforts to lobby Haftar for naval access are aimed at duplicating Moscow’s achievements in Syria following the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, according to experts.

Following its 2015 intervention on Assad’s behalf, Russia has substantially increased the use of its naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus, the only Mediterranean port to which Moscow has access.

With a naval presence in either Benghazi or Tobruk, Russia could significantly increase its reach, by having “surface-to-air missiles deployed, anti-ship cruise missiles, electronic warfare equipment, but more importantly, be able to deploy the Russian Mediterranean fleet to set port,” said Baadi.

“This setup in having both, the eastern flank of Europe [from Tartus] and also the southern flank of Europe [from Libya] presents a strategic advantage, both vis-a-vis Europe and against NATO as well,” he added.

‘Discussing fire safety with an arsonist’

Given the geostrategic stakes, the US is keeping a close eye on Russia’s outreach to Haftar in the wake of the Derna flooding.

Just days after Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yevkurov left Benghazi, the Americans were on the tarmac.

On Thursday, September 21, General Michael Langley, commander of the US Africa Command, and Richard Norland, US special envoy to Libya, arrived in Benghazi in an aircraft bearing humanitarian aid.

After a stop in Tripoli, where they held talks with representatives of the country’s internationally recognised government, the two senior US officials met the strongman of eastern Libya.

“Gen. Langley met with LNA commander Haftar in Benghazi to discuss the importance of forming a democratically elected national government, reunifying the Libyan military, and safeguarding Libyan sovereignty by removing foreign mercenaries,” the US Embassy in Libya said in an X post.

The messaging drew snide quips from Libya analysts monitoring the LNA’s crackdown on journalists and activists following a protest by flood-hit Derna residents outside the city’s landmark Al Sahaba mosque.

“Meeting Haftar to discuss democratic elections is like discussing fire safety with an arsonist. Shut the door on your way out mate,” said Anas El Gomati, director of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, on X.

“I think the West is very naïve about how to engage with Haftar,” said Tarek Megerisi, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “My advice to the US would be to take a very strong line in pushing back against the securitisation of the Derna crisis,” he added, referring to what Amnesty International has called the LNA’s “well-honed machinery of repression to silence criticism, muzzle civil society and evade responsibility”.

‘America’s man’ or ‘Russia’s man’ in Libya?

US policy on Libya over the past few years has been characterised by muddle and absence, according to many analysts.

“Washington is playing catchup on Libya because policy is always overshadowed by other priorities,” said Frederic Wehrey, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Libya surfaces in US consciousness when there are threat concerns: ISIS [the Islamic State group], energy security and Russia’s spoiling influence in Libya.”

Since 2014 – when his military “Operation Dignity” on Benghazi split the country in two – Haftar has positioned himself as an indispensable Libyan player who has at various points engaged with the US, Russia, France, Italy, the EU, Egypt and the UAE, even as he dismays officials in global and regional capitals.

A Gaddafi-era army officer, Haftar began the post-2011 chapter as “America’s man” – the product of a 20-year stay in Virginia after the CIA failed to find another country to house his commando force engaged in covert operations against the longtime Libyan dictator. 

“In the back of Russia’s mind, Haftar is still “America’s man” in Libya, especially after the twenty years that Haftar spent in Virginia,” noted Khalil El Hasse in a Washington Institute briefing.

“On whether Haftar is America’s man or Russia’s man, I think he thrives on being in the grey zone – which is fully, neither. But I do think that the Americans have displayed a naiveite that perhaps the Russians have not because the Russians are as opportunistic, if not more opportunistic, than Haftar himself,” said Baadi.

The US and its European allies have played the opportunistic game with Haftar, but they are falling behind Russia in strategy and the Libyan people have been the biggest losers, according to experts.

“A variety of international powers have crafted their relationship with this personality under the guise of counterterrorism,” said Stephanie Williams, former UN special envoy to Libya and currently a nonresident senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution. “Nations tend to prioritise these kind of discrete files – whether it’s counterterrorism or oil or counter-migration – at the expense of frankly, the kind of institution-building that was needed in the wake of 2011.”

More than a decade after Gaddafi’s ouster, the international roadmap for the North African country is focused on a “Libyan-led” process towards parliamentary and presidential elections.

The process, led by the current UN envoy to Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, a veteran Senegalese diplomat, has a whiff of dismaying familiarity for most Libyans, who have endured election cancellations, obstructions and irregularities by their political elites.

During the September 10 protests outside the Al Sahaba mosque in Derna, residents vented their rage against Aguila Saleh, the eastern-based parliament speaker and Haftar ally. At 79, Saleh is viewed as a symbol of Libya’s political malaise, unilaterally pushing “legislation” through the chamber that favour his cronies and Haftar allies.

Saleh’s nephew, Abdulmonem al-Ghaithi, was Derna’s appointed mayor when the dam disaster that was “decades in the making” struck. Ghaithi was sacked shortly after the tragedy.

Read moreLibya’s deadly dam collapse was decades in the making

The Derna disaster could provide a tipping point for change, and it’s one that should be seized by countries supporting democracy in Libya before the Russians – under a new “Africa man” – can play spoiler.

“Derna does in fact represent an opportunity for responsible international and regional actors to correct the trajectory of their policy on Libya, to first of all stand with the Libyan people,” said Williams. “There is a moral responsibility now because what happened in Libya is going to happen somewhere else, we’re going have a climate change-driven event that will be compounded by conflict, chaos and misgovernance.”

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A compassionate and sustainable EU asylum system is not impossible

By Harlem Désir, IRC Senior Vice President, Europe

Everybody has the right to claim asylum on EU territory and should not be deterred or prevented from doing so, Harlem Désir writes.

While uncertainties remain about the circumstances surrounding this month’s devastating shipwreck off the Greek coast, one thing is for sure: Europe’s approach to migration and asylum is failing. 

It is failing people seeking protection in Europe, often with a deadly human cost. 

It is failing to share responsibilities for new arrivals fairly across Europe or to properly support host communities. 

And it is failing to bring any sense of order to the migration process, fuelling populist and far-right narratives.

The EU’s New Pact on Asylum and Migration was intended to address these problems and, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said back in 2020, “rise to the challenge to manage migration jointly”. 

However, there is a risk that the current proposals, agreed between member states this month, may, in fact, further entrench some of the most problematic elements of the current system.

The EU needs to press pause on its permanent state of “crisis” and take stock of what is really needed to create a truly humane, sustainable EU migration and asylum policy.

Contrary to the claims of some politicians and commentators, this is perfectly within its grasp. Here’s how.

A lack of political will has weakened Europe’s solidarity

First, the EU needs to create a concrete, predictable mechanism for states to show solidarity with countries of first arrival, like Greece and Italy, so they do not bear disproportionate responsibility for supporting new arrivals. 

This should be centred on relocations — in other words, transferring new arrivals from their first country of arrival to other EU states where their asylum claim will be processed. 

Such a system would take the pressure off Europe’s border states, making them less likely to attempt to violently push people back from their territory and more inclined to scale up search and rescue operations in line with their moral and legal obligations.

Worryingly, a lack of political will from certain member states has left the current New Pact agreement relatively weak when it comes to solidarity. 

With other parts of the package heavily focused on mandatory border procedures, which would likely see more people detained in their country of first arrival, the Pact looks likely to increase responsibilities on southern states — not reduce them. 

It’s vital that EU leaders rethink this approach and ensure that all elements of the Pact are pulling in the same direction to ease the burden on frontline states.

Ramping up safe routes could prevent deadly journeys

Secondly, EU leaders need to recognise that nobody embarks on dangerous journeys in search of protection unless they feel they have no other option. 

Yet, tragically this is too often the case. The EU’s failure to adequately scale up existing and create more safe pathways effectively slams the door on people seeking protection — leaving many stranded in countries where they are unsafe and putting them at risk of abuse and exploitation.

It’s critical that Europe ramps up safe routes so people are not forced onto deadly journeys. 

One under-used tool that would help towards this goal is refugee resettlement in cooperation with UNHCR. 

Last year, a record 2 million refugees were in need of this vital lifeline. Yet, despite pledging to welcome over 20,000 refugees through this pathway, EU states collectively resettled just 17,000 — equating to an average of just 618 new arrivals per member state and accounting for only 1.1% of global needs. 

Our continent has an obligation to treat people with dignity and humanity

The EU can and must do better. It’s vital that EU states commit to resettling at least 44,000 refugees in 2024, with a view to further scaling this up to a number more proportionate to Europe’s wealth and size. 

They must also adopt the Union Resettlement Framework, another key part of the Pact which would establish a more structured, predictable and longstanding EU policy on resettlement.

Third, if new arrivals are to thrive in their new communities, it’s essential that they are treated with dignity and humanity on arrival in Europe. 

The IRC’s experience from countries including Greece shows that keeping people in remote facilities, under constant surveillance and behind barbed wire fences, prevents their inclusion into local communities and has a devastating impact on their mental health. 

Instead of deterring and detaining new arrivals, it is in everyone’s interest to invest in inclusion — ensuring that all have access to dignified housing, physical and mental health support, and the training and support needed to rebuild their lives and contribute to their new communities.

A humane EU asylum system is indeed possible

Finally, this tragic shipwreck is a stark reminder that all EU states have a legal obligation to uphold the right to asylum in Europe. 

Everybody has the right to claim asylum on EU territory and should not be deterred or prevented from doing so. 

The New Pact must include a commitment from each member state to establish a robust, fully independent border monitoring mechanism which will not only keep track of any attempts to undermine this right but will hold those responsible for violations to account.

It’s time to dispel the myth that a truly humane EU asylum system is not possible. The EU’s remarkable response to people fleeing Ukraine proves otherwise. 

The true crisis is not that people are asking for refuge but the glaring lack of political will to provide it.

Harlem Désir is the International Rescue Committee’s Senior Vice-President, Europe. Previously, he was the founder and president of SOS Racisme, a Member of the European Parliament, the French Secretary of State for European Affairs and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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Does making a deal with Tunisia’s Saied mean Europe can be extorted?

By Tarek Megerisi, Senior Policy Fellow, ECFR

During their most recent visit to Tunis, European leaders just threw away the continent’s best chance of living up to its much-professed values and tackling the forces that actually drive Tunisian migration, Tarek Megerisi writes.

Tunisia is suffering. A collapsing economy has caused shortages of basic foods and medicines for over a year now, while inflation has rendered any protein a rare delicacy. 

Cities are left without water during the evenings as local agriculture is devastated. And it’s not just the quality of life which is oppressive.

Politicians, judges, journalists, and activists are all being arrested in droves for the crime of standing up to their authoritarian President Kais Saied, who keeps fiddling as his country burns.

After two years of nonchalance, Europe, at last, has been roused into action. 

Last week, a coalition led by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and including Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen and Dutch PM Mark Rutte travelled to Tunis.

Their timing was almost cinematic, coming shortly after the Tunisian central bank announced it could only afford 91 more days of imports and the country’s credit rating was downgraded yet again. 

But the European leaders weren’t coming to help Tunisia: they were desperately trying to stop Tunisian migrants. 

And in their panic, they’ve thrown away Europe’s and Tunisia’s best chance to reform its political economy and bring migration under control.

Fears of supercharged migration made European leaders make the wrong call

Emigration out of the North African country has been rising exponentially over the past two years, as young Tunisians progressively lost hope in their country and their capacity to amend the two issues they feel the most passionately about: the lack of economic opportunity and a security service that brutalises rather than protects them.

Europe’s fear is that migration will be supercharged if Tunisia defaults on its crushing loan repayments or runs out of the foreign currency needed for food, fuel and medicinal imports. 

What’s even worse is that this crisis is completely unnecessary and could have been avoided altogether.

An IMF cash injection was agreed with Saied’s government last December. But, the populist and paranoid president keeps refusing to sign off on it, repackaging the unpopularity of cutting subsidies to the public sector as a violation of Tunisian sovereignty.

However, he has failed to articulate any plan of his own beyond whispers of an Argentina-style voluntary default.

A golden opportunity wasted

Then, Meloni’s “Team Europe” landed in Tunis under the pretence of trying to get this IMF deal over the line.

Behind that façade, they hashed out a deal to essentially keep Saied afloat so long as his navy dealt with any migrant boats found on their way to Europe. 

It’s a story that the region and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies will recite the next time Europeans invoke their values to marshal support for Ukraine.

The non-European Mediterranean has witnessed a reaffirmation of European weakness. 

This openness to extortion is something other strongmen like Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have and will continue to routinely exploit whenever they need a cash injection. 

The pressure on all to avoid Tunisia’s economic apocalypse could have been used to amend the IMF deal and include reforms long-demanded by the Tunisians focused on turning the private sector into an engine of wealth creation.

This would’ve given the populist president the optics needed to sign off on the deal and given Tunisians a reason to stay.

But Europe hasn’t just squandered a golden opportunity to reform Tunisia’s economy. 

They’ve casually discarded their one tool to protect the country’s democracy and reverse President Saied’s destabilising tyranny: their leverage over Tunisia’s security services.

A small act of accountability would have gone a long way

Saied has always been a typical strongman who, despite first being a constitutional law professor and then writing the new country’s constitution himself, consistently operated outside Tunisian law to achieve authoritarian goals, from freezing out the parliament in 2021 to his current violent arrest campaign.

He has always been wholly reliant on Tunisian security services to support his diktats, from parking their tanks outside parliament to putting political prisoners on trial in front of military courts.

These same security services receive considerable funding from Europe and the USA and privileges including equipment, training programmes, easy travel for their families to Europe, and the prestige of being a major non-NATO ally.

These privileges, which Tunisia’s senior military class are extremely fond of, could’ve been used as leverage to simply demand that they follow Tunisian law if they are to remain part of the liberal world order’s security establishment. 

It’s a small act of accountability that could have had a monumental effect in restoring the political opposition, media scrutiny, and rule of law — all parts of a democratic society that Saied has shown to be against — and that could have been the vehicle for change. 

Not only has Europe discarded this tool. Even worse: its leaders gave all their power in this relationship to Tunisia’s security structures instead by begging them to become Europe’s border force.

The forces that drive Tunisian migration could have been tackled differently

At the end of Team Europe’s trip, von der Leyen’s unedited message is that Saied and his forces are poised to receive just over €1 billion of European taxpayer money — meaning that Europe will continue to work in Saied’s favour to weaken IMF conditionality by simply covering Tunisia’s debts.

There will be no economic reforms to enable promised trade, no media to report that promised green investments will never come, and no political opposition to scrutinise the cooperation on curbing migration.

Saied’s security services’ salaries and privileges will be ring-fenced. They will receive state-of-the-art European equipment to help them oppress their population. 

As a result, young Tunisians will be even more desperate to migrate.

The continent’s leaders just threw away Europe’s best chance of living up to its much-professed values and tackling the forces that actually drive Tunisian migration. 

Instead, they committed to paying a billion euros solely to advertise to the wider region that they’re open for extortion.

As Meloni, Rutte, and von der Leyen patted each other on the back on the flight home, the irony that they’ve committed Europe to further years of migration anxiety will be lost on them —  just as the rights of Tunisians and the value of democracy was lost on them during their day trip to Tunis.

Tarek Megerisi is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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Questions mount over latest migrant tragedy in Mediterranean

Anger is growing over the handling of a migrant boat disaster off Greece last week that has become one of the biggest tragedies in the Mediterranean in years. The calamity is dominating the country’s political agenda a week ahead of snap elections.

The Hellenic Coast Guard is facing increasing questions over its response to the fishing boat that sank off Greece’s southern peninsula on Wednesday, leading to the death of possibly hundreds of migrants. Nearly 80 people are known to have perished in the wreck and hundreds are still missing, according to the U.N.’s migration and refugee agencies.

Critics say that the Greek authorities should have acted faster to keep the vessel from capsizing. There are testimonies from survivors that the Coast Guard tied up to the vessel and attempted to pull it, causing the boat to sway, which the Greek authorities strongly deny.

The boat may have been carrying as many as 750 passengers, including women and children, according to reports. Many of them were trapped underneath the deck in the sinking, according to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. “The ship was heavily overcrowded,” Frontex said.  

About 100 people are known to have survived the sinking. Authorities continued to search for victims and survivors over the weekend.

The disaster may be “the worst tragedy ever” in the Mediterranean Sea, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said on Friday. She said there has been a massive increase in the number of migrant boats heading from Libya to Europe since the start of the year.

Frontex said in a statement on Friday that no agency plane or boat was present at the time of the capsizing on Wednesday. The agency said it alerted the Greek and Italian authorities about the vessel after a Frontex plane spotted it, but the Greek officials waved off an offer of additional help.

Greece has been at the forefront of Europe’s migration crisis since 2015, when hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa traveled thousands of miles across the Continent hoping to claim asylum.

Migration and border security have been key issues in the Greek political debate. Following Wednesday’s wreck, they have jumped to the top of the agenda, a week before national elections on June 25.

Greece is currently led by a caretaker government. Under the conservative New Democracy administration, in power until last month, the country adopted a tough migration policy. In late May, the EU urged Greece to launch a probe into alleged illegal deportations.

New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is expected to return to the prime minister’s office after the vote next Sunday, blasted criticism of the Greek authorities, saying it should instead be directed to the human traffickers, who he called “human scums.”

“It is very unfair for some so-called ‘people in solidarity’ [with refugees and migrants] to insinuate that the [Coast Guard] did not do its job. … These people are out there … battling the waves to rescue human lives and protect our borders,” Mitsotakis, who maintains a significant lead in the polls, said during a campaign event in Sparta on Saturday.

The Greek authorities claimed the people on board, some thought to be the smugglers who had arranged the boat from Libya, refused assistance and insisted on reaching Italy. So the Greek Coast Guard did not intervene, though it monitored the vessel for more than 15 hours before it eventually capsized.

“What orders did the authorities have, and they didn’t intervene because one of these ‘scums’ didn’t give them permission?” the left-wing Syriza party said in a statement. “Why was no order given to the lifeboat … to immediately assist in a rescue operation? … Why were life jackets not distributed … and why Frontex assistance was not requested?”

Alarm Phone, a network of activists that helps migrants in danger, said the Greek authorities had been alerted repeatedly many hours before the boat capsized and that there was insufficient rescue capacity.

According to a report by WDR citing migrants’ testimonies, attempts were made to tow the endangered vessel, but in the process the boat began to sway and sank. Similar testimonies by survivors appeared in Greek media.

A report on Greek website said the vessel remained in the same spot off the town of Pylos for at least 11 hours before sinking. According to the report, the location on the chart suggests the vessel was not on a “steady course and speed” toward Italy, as the Greek Coast Guard said.

After initially saying that there was no effort to tow the boat, the Hellenic Coast Guard said on Friday that a patrol vessel approached and used a “small buoy” to engage the vessel in a procedure that lasted a few minutes and then was untied by the migrants themselves.

Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Alexiou defended the agency. “You cannot carry out a violent diversion on such a vessel with so many people on board, without them wanting to, without any sort of cooperation,” he said.

Alexiou said there is no video of the operation available.

Nine people, most of them from Egypt, were arrested over the capsizing, charged with forming a criminal organization with the purpose of illegal migrant trafficking, causing a shipwreck and endangering life. They will appear before a magistrate on Monday, according to Greek judicial authorities.

“Unfortunately, we have seen this coming because since the start of the year, there was a new modus operandi with these fishing boats leaving from the eastern part of Libya,” the EU’s Johansson told a press conference on Friday. “And we’ve seen an increase of 600 percent of these departures this year,” she added.

Greek Supreme Court Prosecutor Isidoros Dogiakos has urged absolute secrecy in the investigations being conducted in relation to the shipwreck.

Thousands of people took to the streets in different cities in Greece last week to protest the handling of the incident and the migration policies of Greece and the EU. More protests were planned for Sunday.

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Italy plays on historic heartstrings with Algeria to boost critical energy ties

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni hailed Algeria as Rome’s “most stable, strategic and long-standing” partner in North Africa as she wrapped up a two-day visit on Monday aimed at securing Italy’s energy supplies and promoting her plan for a “non-predatory” approach to investment on the continent.

Meloni, who leads Italy’s most right-wing government since World War II, was making her first bilateral visit abroad since her election last year, underscoring the importance given to Rome’s relationship with gas-rich Algeria at a time when European nations are racing to wean their economies off Russian gas.

Like all ranking visitors, Meloni began her trip by laying a wreath at the Monument of Martyrs, the hilltop memorial commemorating Algerians who died in the country’s struggle for independence from France. Her own country’s contribution to that struggle was the subject of a later stop in central Algiers, at a garden dedicated to Enrico Mattei, the legendary founder of the Italian energy company ENI, who championed – and bankrolled – Algeria’s independence fight in the 1950s and early 60s.

Meloni was accompanied by ENI’s current boss Matteo Descalzi, the chief architect of Italy’s ongoing pivot from Russian gas to Algerian gas. Their visit to the Mattei gardens was symbolic of a rapprochement dictated both by interest and historical affinity.

“In Algerian eyes, ENI is a lot more than a company. It’s a symbol of Italo-Algerian friendship and of a relationship that dates back to before independence,” said the Algerian political journalist Akram Kharief.

“Algeria is always grateful to its allies. It has not forgotten that ENI was one of the very few companies not to flee during the country’s civil war (in the 1990s),” Kharief added. “As a result, the company enjoys privileged access to Algerian contracts and resources.”

Southern Europe’s gas hub

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Algeria’s ample reserves of natural gas have played a key role in reducing Italy’s energy dependence on Moscow, which accounted for 40% of Rome’s gas imports prior to the war. Meloni’s trip to Algiers come on the heels of two visits by her predecessor Mario Draghi, who secured an Algerian pledge to rapidly ramp up gas exports.

Since then, Algeria has replaced Russia as Italy’s top energy supplier and Rome is pushing to further increase its energy imports from Algeria, hoping to act as a hub for supplies between Africa and northern Europe in the coming years. It also wants guarantees that Algeria can live up to its pledges, amid concerns that the country’s creaking energy infrastructure will prove unable to meet the surging demand.

“Gas flows from Algeria increased last year but not by as much as promised. They even dropped in January, forcing Italy to buy more gas coming from Russia,” said Francesco Sassi, a research fellow specialising in energy geopolitics at the Italian consultancy RIE. “Algeria needs huge investment to boost both its production and export capacities amid a steep increase in local consumption,” he added.

On Monday, ENI’s Descalzi signed a raft of agreements with Algeria’s energy giant Sonatrach aimed at increasing Algerian gas exports to Italy. The two companies also agreed to develop projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and possibly building a pipeline to transport hydrogen to Italy.

Announcing the deals at a joint press conference with Meloni, Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said the aim was for Italy to “become a platform for distribution of Algerian energy products in Europe”. He noted that trade between the two countries had already doubled from 8 billion dollars in 2021 to 16 billion in 2022.

Tebboune said his country wished “to enlarge cooperation (between Algeria and Italy) beyond energy”, pointing to Italy’s fabric of small and medium-sized companies as a model “to help Algeria get out of its dependence on hydrocarbons”.

Italian carmaker Fiat already plans to open to a factory in Algeria and Italy’s Confindustria industrial lobby agreed on Monday to pursue greater cooperation with Algerian business. The two sides also hailed an agreement between the Italian Space Agency and its Algerian counterpart to share knowledge and develop joint projects, while Rome offered its expertise to develop Algeria’s untapped potential in the tourism industry.

The ‘Mattei Plan’

The raft of deals and warm words exchanged during Meloni’s visit reflect a traditional affinity between Rome and Algiers, unburdened by the colonial legacy that plagues France’s relations with the North African country. They also underscore a convergence of interests between two countries that have sensed an opportunity in the energy crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine.

Zine Ghebouli, a scholar on Euro-Mediterranean cooperation and Algerian politics at the University of Glasgow, said Italy has “taken advantage of Europe’s gas crisis to position itself as an energy hub”, giving Rome a solid base to strengthen its clout in the Mediterranean region.

“The overall objective now is to move from energy cooperation to cooperation on the economy, defence and foreign policy,” he added, pointing to Italy’s search for stability in North Africa – and particularly in Libya – to stem the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. 

“Italy has shown positive signs regarding technology transfers, for instance. It will be interesting to see whether increased energy cooperation helps foster progress on other subjects too, including migration, and with other countries in the region, such as Tunisia,” Ghebouli said.

Since taking office just over three months ago, Meloni has repeatedly spoken of a “Mattei Plan” for Africa, named after the ENI founder who challenged Anglo-American oil majors over their exploitation of African resources – and whose death in a plane crash 60 years ago remains shrouded in mystery. She has touted the plan as a win-win partnership that will guarantee Europe’s energy security while addressing the root causes of migratory flows from Africa – namely poverty and jihadist unrest.

The approach “addresses what Meloni’s government sees a vital interest: to stem the flow of migrants,” said Kharief. “Italy has neither the coercive means to fight jihadism nor the economic might to foster development in Africa, but it has a broad plan and it has identified Algeria as its key strategic partner in this endeavour,” he added.

During Monday’s news conference in Algiers, Meloni promoted her plan for “collaboration on an equal basis, to transform the many crises that we are facing into opportunities.” She spoke of a “model of development that allows African nations to grow based on what they have, thanks to a non-predatory approach by foreign nations.”

However, the Italian premier has offered scant detail about her plan for a “virtuous relationship with African countries”. Some analysts have described it as little more than a PR stunt by the far-right leader – and evidence of the current Italian government’s desire to act independently of its European partners.

>> A ‘seismic’ shift: Will Meloni’s Italy turn its back on Europe?

By evoking Mattei’s memory, Meloni not only tugs at Algerian heartstrings. She “also harks harks back to a memory of Italy as a major player in the Mediterranean and the Mideast – constructing a narrative that has no grounding today,” said RIE’s Sassi.

“The Mattei Plan is primarily about playing up Italy’s role in tackling Europe’s energy crisis in order to secure the investments that Italy itself needs,” he said, noting that the country will need to upgrade its own infrastructure in order to serve as energy hub for the continent. “It is natural for each country to play the national card,” Sassi added. “But the current energy crisis can only have a European solution.”

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