On the defensive after a deadly sinking of a migrant boat near an Italian beach, Italy’s right-wing government is claiming that Russian mercenaries in Libya are behind a surge in migrant arrivals in alleged retaliation for Western support for Ukraine.
Defense Minister Guido Crosetto, a leading member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, described the recent increase in unhealthy smuggler boats sailing to Italy’s coast from Libya as “part of a clear war strategy” on Monday evening. hybrid that the Wagner division, mercenaries paid by Russia, is carrying out, using its significant clout in several African countries”.
Based on that statement, Brothers of Italy lawmaker Silvio Giovine on Tuesday described migration flows to Italy as “retaliation against Europe and the West”.
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The far-right lawmaker said members of the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group in Libya aim to destabilize the North African country. For years, fighting between rival Libyan militias has left the country a largely lawless land where traffickers and smugglers can thrive.
Some analysts were quick to dismiss Crosetto’s claims that the Wagner group was behind the arrivals of migrants, which so far this year are about three times as many as in each of the previous two years.
“This is nonsense,” tweeted Wolfram Lacher, an analyst at SWP, a Berlin-based institute that deals with foreign and security policy. “The increase in migrant departures from eastern Libya over the past year is overseen by the Haftar clan” – a reference to Khalifa Hifter, a powerful Libyan military commander.
Wagner mercenaries have aided Hifter’s forces and are primarily concentrated in central and eastern Libya.
Other Meloni allies in recent days have cited fears by Italian intelligence services that some 685,000 migrants now in Libya could soon be headed to Italy on smugglers’ ships. But officials at the United Nations migration agency have called this scenario implausible, saying that while as many as 700,000 migrants may be residing in Libya, many are from African countries further south and want to return home after working in Libya.
Since its inception five months ago, Meloni’s coalition government, which includes Anti-Migrant League leader Matteo Salvini, has cracked down on humanitarian rescue boats operating in the central Mediterranean north of Libya.
Last week, a Cabinet decree targeted smugglers by making it a separate offense if a shipwreck or capsize kills more migrants, with sentences carrying up to 30 years in prison.
Meloni and some of his ministers have come under fire from critics – opposition leaders and humanitarian groups – who argue that the February 26 sinking could have been avoided if Italian Coast Guard rescue boats had been dispatched quickly as soon as the The migrant boat, which had set sail from Turkey, was spotted by a patrol plane operated by the European Border Agency.
The prime minister says he is blameless, saying on Monday evening that “I have a clear conscience”.
A staunch supporter of military aid to Ukraine as it defends itself against a full-scale invasion of Russia, Meloni warned against “putting one’s head in the sand, letting mobsters and traffickers decide who enters our country, letting mercenaries Wagner and the fundamentalists continue to gain a foothold in Africa.”
Wagner’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has rejected Italy’s claims. In a comment posted on his messaging app channel, Prigozhin denied that Wagner had any relation to the increase in smugglers’ boats.
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“We have no idea what’s going on with the migrant crisis,” Prigozhin said. “We have nothing to do with it. We have our own business to attend to,” an apparent reference to the role of Wagner fighters in the Russian offensive in Ukraine.
The well-known death toll from the shipwreck off the “tip” of the Italian peninsula rose to 80 on Tuesday with the recovery of the body of a man overboard. Eighty people survived.
Another minister from Meloni’s party, Adolfo Urso, a former member of the parliament’s intelligence committee, noted that Wagner’s role in Africa was cited in a 2021 report to lawmakers.
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That report specified, said Urso, who is minister for enterprises, that “there was a specific strategy of the Russian power aimed at controlling the country in which there was a flow of immigration which then occurred in our Mediterranean”.