* Libyan coastguard relies on fishing boasts, inflatables
* Officers lack everything from radar to modern boats
* EU helps with migrant patrols
* More training and funds promised
By Ulf Laessing
TRIPOLI, Dec 17 When Libyan coastguard officer
Ashraf El-Badri needs to dispatch a boat to stop illegal
migrants heading for Europe, his options are limited - ask the
oil ministry for a tug, use an ageing fishing boat or board an
European governments are counting on officials like Badri to
stop an influx of hopeful migrants from setting off from Libya's
shores to reach Italy and Malta.
But more than two years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi,
the country's coastguard is just not up to the task.
The force does not have radar or a single helicopter, or
even adequate gear for the officers who go out to sea in small
inflatables - the kind of boat sometimes used for fun rafting
trips in other parts of the world.
"Smugglers have guns, equipment and they often open fire,"
said Badri, who heads the coastguard in the capital Tripoli.
"We just lack any equipment. We don't even have bulletproof
vests or night goggles, which are not available in the local
Navy ships from the Gaddafi era rust away at a quay next to
his office at the central Tripoli naval base. Some were damaged
by NATO bombs when the alliance was helping the rebels fight
Gaddafi and others have fallen into disuse through neglect.
The coastguard says it stopped 2,200 migrants on the sea in
September and October alone. But officers admit they are unable
to control Libya's 2,000-km long shore.
The force has only one large inflatable boat available in
Tripoli, officers said. A base in Khoms, 100 km to the east,
relies on two fishing boats and another slightly larger
"We have to use fishing boats ... or we sometimes borrow
tugs from the oil ministry," said Badri's colleague Masud
Abdul-Samed, head of the operations room at Tripoli port.
The European Union has started training airport officials
and guards for the sea and land borders, and Italian defence
firm Selex, part of Finmeccanica group, this month
began setting up a satellite system to allow officers to patrol
But Western officials are under no illusion that it will be
easy to get the force up to speed anytime soon.
Libyan officials say one challenge is that political
infighting has hampered funding for many government functions.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, a liberal, has accused Islamists in
parliament of deliberately blocking approval of budget payments
in a bid to bring down his government.
Senior defense officials are also reluctant to take the
initiative to decide who to train and what equipment to order -
a legacy of the Gaddafi era when all decisions were made at the
Diplomats say another problem is that the defence ministry,
to which the coastguard belongs, is dominated by multiple
militias from the 2011 uprising whose rivalries are making it
difficult to agree on the new structure of the force.
Tunisia is closer than Libya to Malta and Lampedusa, an
Italian island south of Sicily, the two main points of entry by
sea to Europe for human traffickers, but the smugglers have
moved routes to the OPEC producer to exploit its turmoil and
Zeidan struggles to assert authority in a country awash with
arms. In many areas of the country, including parts of the
coast, militias call the shots.
"Tunisia is much more difficult. You have a state there, you
have police. It is not as easy to carry out your smuggling
operations there," said Emmanuel Gignac, head of the U.N.
refugee agency UNHCR mission in Libya.
Gignac said there has been a rise of refugees escaping civil
war in Syria or Sudan's western Darfur region, scene of a
decade-long insurgency. Many use Libya as a transit point.
The UNHCR says more than 23,000 people, mostly Africans,
have tried leaving Libya by boat this year, triple the number in
2012. Hundreds have died on their way to Lampedusa in the past
Western diplomats worry that it is not just hopeful
emigrants who are heading for Libya but also Islamist militants.
With its poorly monitored land borders, the North African
country has already become a transit route for weapons for al
Qaeda operating in sub-Saharan countries.
The coastguard tend to run geographical sectors with little
coordination with other units. There is even competition with
the navy and a separate coast guard police which mainly patrols
the ports - another legacy of Gaddafi, who used to play units
off each other.
Most of the more than 2,000 staff are former rebels whom the
government has coopted to get armed youngsters off the streets.
They are enthusiastic about the coastguard mission but lack
experience and even the most basic skills. Many of them had
never been to the sea before signing up.
The young men certainly do not lack boldness when going out
in their inflatables up to 120 km off the coast, often in rough
That is the reason why the EU is focusing on basic survival
training such as ensuring everyone carries a life vest when
going out. The coastguard officials have vests at their bases
but used to rarely use them, they say.
"I admire these young men. They are very bold to go out in
such boats so far," said David Aquilina, a trainer from Malta
working for the EU Border Assistance Mission.
"They want to work, but need training and equipment," he
said as he watched coastguard officers practicing how to rescue
a comrade who had gone overboard. "First they need to learn how
to stay safe before they can rescue emigrants."
The EU has so far trained 130 border patrol officials,
including 30 coastguard officers. Italy is also training some
officers and repairing four patrol boats from the Gaddafi era.
Libya has commissioned ten new boats from Spain and more
from South Korea but it will be years before they are built and
paid for, officers say.
"God willing, we will have before 2016 boats with lengths of
60 meters or more which can stay out in the sea a long time,"
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)