Friday, 20 February 2015

A spreading crisis

The crisis that has Libya at its centre has been brewing since oppositionists – backed by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation airpower – overthrew Moammar el Gadaffi’s regime in 2011. Despite hopes for a transition to a stable and prosperous democracy underwritten by Africa’s biggest oil reserves, Libya has become an object lesson in the unintended consequences of armed intervention.

The crisis zone now stretches from the south – Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso – to Egypt, which this week publicly launched an air war on the Islamist militants fighting for control of Tripolitania (western Libya). To the north, the zone stretches to the Italian island of Lampedusa, to which thousands of refugees are fleeing, desperate to escape Libya’s inferno. The confrontation between Libya’s secularists and its Islamists has morphed into a regional war: this week Egypt called for a United Nations-backed force to fight Libya’s Islamists. Qatar and Sudan still back the Islamists.

Most scandalous, however, since the horrific deaths and drownings could be avoided, is European Union policy towards the desperate migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. It seems some EU officials regard the casualty rates as a useful deterrent. For a while, Italy beefed up its coastguard and saved shipwrecked refugees but the EU cut funds for the programme. Now Italy’s offer to send 5,000 troops to an international force in Libya shows fresh thinking. Just how that force might work is another matter. The UN is making only halting progress in brokering negotiations between the two sides.

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