UK 'could take active lead' against arms and people smuggling around Libya

Britain could send another warship to the Mediterranean to help tackle people-smuggling and the illicit movement of arms in and out of Libya, it has been revealed.

Prime Minister David Cameron told fellow leaders at the G7 summit in Japan that the UK was ready to take an "active leadership role" in building the capacity of Libya's coastguard to clamp down on smuggling operations.

The UK has this week deployed four military planners to the Rome HQ of the European Union's Operation Sophia mission to tackle people-trafficking in the central Mediterranean, with the goal of preparing a plan to improve the effectiveness of the Libyan coastguard.

The newly established Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli has already requested support from the UK in improving coastguard maritime operations, and it is thought this may soon be followed by a request for international ships to operate in Libyan waters.

If this request is received, the UK will seek the extension of Sophia's mandate, as well as a Security Council resolution at the United Nations enabling its forces to assist in the interception of arms shipments.

Downing Street spokesmen were unable to say what type of Royal Navy ship would be sent to join four UK vessels already involved in the EU mission, and they declined to discuss what evidence they have for illicit arms movements from the Libyan coast, including the type and quantity of weapons thought to be involved.

Reports have suggested that arms left over from the military forces of ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi have been finding their way into Europe, while Islamic State militants in the extremist group's Libyan stronghold of Sirte have been bolstered by deliveries of weapons from overseas.

Mr Cameron first floated the idea of extending Operation Sophia into Libyan territorial waters at a Brussels summit of the EU in March, warning that numbers of migrants attempting to cross via the central Mediterranean could be expected to swell once the alternative route through Turkey, Greece and the western Balkans had been closed.

The GNA's formal request for support, received at the weekend, has allowed the PM to launch a drive to turn his aspiration into reality.

He told G7 leaders at the Ise-Shima summit that the migration crisis is "a global challenge requiring a comprehensive solution" and said Britain was determined to work with the new Libyan government on the issue.

Around 150,000 migrants arrived in Italy by boat in 2015, having made the perilous journey from Libya. So far this year, more than 37,000 people have been intercepted in the Mediterranean and taken to Italian ports and hundreds are believed to have died after their overloaded vessels sank or capsized.

There is evidence that some smugglers have taken advantage of the fact that Operation Sophia can carry out its activities only in international waters, by sending migrants out in boats with only enough fuel to get them away from the Libyan coast, after which they are left to drift until picked up by EU ships.

Mr Cameron believes that operating in Libyan waters would allow the warships to join the north African country's coastguard in identifying and intercepting boats close to the shore and forcing them to return.