Monday 24 October 2016

Nato targets people smugglers in Aegean Sea

Peter Foster in London

Published 12/02/2016 | 02:30

Two migrant twin brothers look at each other as they wait to continue their train journey to western Europe at a refugee transit camp in Slavonski Brod, Croatia
Two migrant twin brothers look at each other as they wait to continue their train journey to western Europe at a refugee transit camp in Slavonski Brod, Croatia
Ashton Carter

Nato is sending a naval flotilla "without delay" to help stop people smugglers in the Aegean Sea, following a request from Germany, Greece and Turkey, the alliance's chief said yesterday.

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Jens Stoltenberg told a press conference that Nato was directing the "standing maritime group to move into the Aegean without delay and start maritime surveillance activities" after alliance defence ministers backed the move.

The move came as Turkey warned it was unable to cope following the latest upsurge in migrants streaming from Aleppo following days of bombardment by Russian warplanes in support of forces loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The multinational task force, under German command, is composed of a German flagship, the 20,000 tonne supply vessel FGS Bonn, the 3,000-tonne multi-purpose frigate TCG Barbaros from Turkey and the HMCS Fredericton, a 5,000-tonne Halifax class frigate from Canada.

A British Ministry of Defence spokesman said UK forces would not be part of the current deployment but welcomed the Nato decision, saying it would save lives and was "firmly aimed at breaking the business model of criminal gangs who operate in the region".

He said: "Illegal migration and trafficking is placing thousands of lives at risk through treacherous journeys into Europe."

The Nato chief said the migrant crisis now posed a major security threat to the 28-nation alliance. "This is not about stopping and pushing back (refugee boats)... but about critical surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks," he added.

The move is an unusual step into humanitarian aid territory for an alliance that normally reserves its assets for strictly military matters.

Ashton Carter, the US Defence Secretary, earlier said that the Nato ministers had backed the plan.

"Nato and all the parties at the table this morning indicated a willingness for Nato to support and be a part of that operation," Mr Carter said.

The move comes amid mounting Turkish fury about the latest Russian attacks on rebel positions in northern Syria, and at the inaction of its western allies in Nato in response.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had long proposed the area north of Aleppo to the Turkish border - historically the heart of the Ottoman Empire whose towns and cities have remained closely linked to the economy of southern Turkey - as a "buffer zone" for the protection of Syrian refugees.

However, he has been repeatedly rebuffed by the United States and Nato, but feels he is now being made to bear the brunt of the consequent destruction of the region by Russian bombs and Iran-supplied troops.

The Standing Maritime Group is a force used by Nato to respond to crises around the world, and is usually made up of Nato members with a significant navy, including Britain, the US, Spain, Canada, Holland, Norway, Italy, Greece and Turkey. When not on crisis duty, they work together in military exercises.

Gerry Northwood, a former Royal Navy captain who commanded the UK counter-piracy force off Somalia and who now runs MAST, a maritime security company, said that the mission to the Aegean would probably comprise at least five ships, probably frigates and destroyers.

On the possible success of the mission in fighting people-smuggling, he said: "It is not going to be easy. The distances are short and you have so many islands, which cumulatively is a massive coastline to be protecting.

"But one shouldn't underestimate the value of deterrence, and once you establish good intelligence networks you get results."

It would also probably mean that Nato would have to downscale its anti-piracy mission off the Somali coast and in the Indian Ocean, where piracy has ebbed away in recent years as commercial ships have begun to deploy armed guards.

"There is a risk that Nato are starting to spread themselves quite thin, and it means that Nato is unlikely to be a player for much more in the Indian Ocean, which is currently relatively quiet," he said.

"Then again, we have to bear in mind that the Somali pirates will be listening to what is going on, and we hve to ensure they cannot exploit the situation." (© Daily Telegraph London)

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