GAETA, Italy - Italy on Friday gave the Libyan coast guard the first two of 10 boats to rescue migrants from foundering smugglers' boats, as part of a strategy Rome hopes will reduce the huge numbers of rescued migrants from reaching Italian shores.
The motorboats boats were handed over at a ceremony in Gaeta, Italy, where an initial group of 20 Libyan coast guard members completed training, including in migrant rescue operations, at the naval school in that southern port town.
Human rights advocates, however, fear if the migrants are returned on Libyan boats to the largely lawless northern African country, they will again risk torture, sexual abuse and exploitation as laborers. Many migrants have reported months of suffering while waiting for smugglers to put them aboard boats.
Attending the ceremony was Libyan Ambassador Ahmed E.I. Safar, who acknowledged that such abuses occur.
"Yes, there were abuses," he said. "There will be abuses probably in the future as well. We will deal with them. We will see what we can do in terms of monitoring, supporting, raising awareness" with the help of other countries and international organizations.
Libya has slid into chaos and violence, as tribal and political factions fight for power after the 2011 demise of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The country now has rival governments in Tripoli and in the east. Human traffickers have taken advantage of the power vacuum to send hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers and other migrants in flimsy boats toward Italian shores.
Tens of thousands of migrants are being rescued at sea in operations coordinated by the Italian coast guard and taken to Italian shores. Many, however, are fleeing poverty and not eligible for political asylum.
Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti, also at the ceremony, said Libya's "stabilization" would give traffickers "less space to maneuver."
The minister said Italy would deliver the rest of the boats by June. He called Libya's coast guard forces "the most important structure in northern Africa" in controlling human trafficking.