BRUSSELS – Late to the rescue, European leaders came through Thursday with pledges of big ships, aircraft and a tripling in funds to save lives in the Mediterranean after the deaths at sea of more than 1,300 migrants over the past three weeks, and agreed to lay the groundwork for military action against traffickers.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose country has been faced with almost daily tragedy as rescuers plucked bodies from frigid waters, called it “a giant step forward.”
Within days, Britain’s aptly named HMS Bulwark and the German supply ship Berlin could be steaming to the heart of the Mediterranean in the biggest sign of the European Union’s belated commitment to contain the tide of rickety ships making the perilous crossing.
The pledge of resources came as victims of the worst-ever migrant disaster in the Mediterranean were buried Thursday in Malta. Two dozen wooden caskets containing the only bodies recovered from a weekend capsizing off Libya that left at least 800 migrants feared dead were laid out for a memorial service.
None of the bodies was identified: One casket had “No. 132” scrawled on it, referring to the number of the DNA sample taken from the corpse in case a relative ever comes to claim it.
For several years as death tolls have mounted, EU leaders have done little more than deplore the loss of lives and mark tragedies with moments of silence and wreaths instead of fundamental action. When Libya disintegrated politically after the overthrow of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi and unrest spread in neighboring countries, Europe failed to take forceful action.
On Thursday, EU leaders pledged to do more, committing at least nine vessels to monitor the waters for traffickers and intervene in case of need. Other member states, from France to Latvia, also lined up more ships, planes and helicopters that could be used to rescue migrants.
The member states agreed to triple funding to $9.7 million a month for the EU’s border operation that patrols the Mediterranean.
They also assigned EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to line up the diplomatic options that would allow EU militaries to strike against the boats used by traffickers. Officials said the lack of a strong Libyan government would likely make U.N. backing necessary.
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