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Irish sailors deployed on Libya sea mission allowed to use force if necessary to inspect ships

Irish naval personnel will be permitted to board and inspect ships by force if required during their deployment to enforce a United Nations arms embargo on Libya, The Irish Times reports.

However, most if not all boardings are expected to take place with the co-operation of the ships and their home countries, says the Irish newspaper, citing officials.

The Irish Naval Service’s LÉ William Butler Yeats set sail for the Mediterranean on Thursday for a six-week deployment as part of Operation Irini, an EU mission to enforce an arms embargo on Libya and help stabilise the North African country after years of civil war.

The ship and its 58 crew will be responsible for intercepting suspicious merchant vessels and searching them for weapons shipments. It is the first time an Irish vessel has embarked on an international mission since 2018.

The Department of Defence said the resolutions underpinning the mission are clear that the use of force is permitted when boarding a ship. However, it said the specific rules of engagement remain classified.

It is understood Irish boarding crews will be permitted to board unco-operative ships but that they will withdraw if faced with armed resistance.

Under the EU mandate establishing the mission, Irish personnel will only be permitted to board a ship with “flag state consent”, in other words with permission from the government of the country where the ship is registered.

Operation Irini personnel must make “good faith efforts” to contact the flag state and ask for permission in advance of boarding. If no answer is received after four hours, these good faith efforts are considered fulfilled and the boarding can go ahead. This is the internationally accepted procedure, the department said in response to queries.

To date, there have been no instances of a ship’s master refusing permission for a boarding team to come aboard. Ship’s masters can be “more or less co-operative”, a spokesman said.

However, the mission has not been without controversy since it was established in 2020.

Turkey has accused Operation Irini of bias in targeting certain Libyan factions more than others and has denied Irini personnel permission to search Turkish-flagged vessels on several occasions.

Operation Irini has also been criticised by human rights groups over its secondary mission of training the Libyan coast guard to carry out interception tasks.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has said the Libyan coast guard has been involved in “flagrant” breaches of the human rights of migrants attempting to cross into Europe. It previously called on Ireland to have no part in this aspect of the mission.

The Defence Forces and Government has stressed the Naval Service will have no role in training the Libyan coast guard.

As well as intercepting arms shipments, the William Butler Yeats will also be responsible for monitoring for petroleum smuggling. It will also assist any vessels which get into difficulty in its area of operations as part of its obligations under international law.

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