German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, speaks to the media after a meeting on divisive migrant issue in Paris, France, July 22, 2109. European ministers are meeting in Paris in a new step to find an accord on the divisive issue of how to deal with migrants crossing the Mediterranean but, shut out by Italy and unwanted elsewhere, caught in political standoffs. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Macron says UN refugee agency attacked, decries Libya camps

July 22, 2019 - 3:17 pm

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron called on Libyan authorities Monday to stop holding transiting refugees in detention camps and said buildings of the United Nations' refugee agency were attacked earlier in the day.

Macron did not elaborate on the attacks he said were carried out on buildings of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. He said France should provide security for vulnerable refugees fleeing their homelands and end the "confinement" in Libya.

Macron met with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and the director general of the International Organization for Migration on Monday, when European ministers in Paris tried to find agreement on dealing with Europe-bound migrants who use Libya as a stepping stone.

Under a deal with the European Union, Libyan vessels apprehend refugees and migrants setting out across the Mediterranean Sea and drag them back unwillingly to the North African country, where battles between two opposing leaders are in progress around Tripoli.

The day began with talks among European interior and foreign ministers, and Macron announced that eight countries have so far signed on to a French-German initiative to cooperate in a burden-sharing mechanism. Southern European countries like Italy and Greece have complained for years that they shoulder a disproportionate responsibility for arriving migrants.

"Europe isn't a la carte when it comes to solidarity," he said, with countries saying they don't want a Europe that shares burdens but are in favor of unity "when it's about receiving structural funds."

Absent from the closed-door meeting of European Union interior and foreign ministers was Italy's populist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. He tweeted a day earlier his strong disagreement with letting France and Germany determine the bloc's refugee policy while nations like Italy are on the front line.

"We intend to make ourselves respected," Salvini declared in another tweet.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas voiced hope earlier in the day that a solution was on the horizon.

"The haggling about emergency rescue in the Mediterranean must finally end," Maas said at a briefing for reporters. "It is really necessary that we manage to put together a coalition of those who are prepared to help, and I think we came a step closer to that today."

He said talks would continue among interior ministers about how an ad hoc mechanism might look that would make it possible for Italy and Malta to open their harbors.

Thousands of migrants set off each year in smuggler's boats from Libya, a war-torn North African nation where migrants are kept in prison-like camps that international authorities have called appalling. The International Organization for Migration says up to June 19, there were 2,252 arrivals in Italy and 1,151 in Malta on the central Mediterranean route while at least 343 other people died trying — all far below the numbers who arrived in previous years.

France has stressed the need for European countries to share the arriving migrants, who are often traveling on traffickers' flimsy boats and rescued by humanitarian groups.

The meeting, called by French President Emmanuel Macron, preceded talks later Monday between Macron and the U.N. chiefs for refugees and migration.

On Sunday, the SOS Mediterranee, a French charity, partnering with Doctors Without Borders, announced it has returned to the sea with a new boat to save migrants, seven months after the flag was pulled from its original ship, Aquarius. The Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking is heading to the Mediterranean with a 31-member crew, the group said.

Salvini wasted no time in warning SOS Mediterranee that Italy was not about to bend on its policy of keeping rescue ships at bay, tweeting Monday, "if someone is thinking about helping smugglers or breaking laws, be careful because we won't be standing still."

The Aquarius, SOS Mediterranee's original rescue ship, ended its operations last fall after Panama revoked its flag and Italian prosecutors ordered the vessel seized, accusing Doctors Without Borders of illegally disposing of tons of contaminated and medical waste. The organization says the Aquarius assisted 30,000 migrants since 2016.

Monday's meeting follows a gathering of EU interior ministers on the issue of rescuing migrants last week in Helsinki, Finland, which holds the rotating EU presidency. Salvini hailed the progress in Helsinki, saying other ministers shared Italy's position of revamping Mediterranean search and rescue rules with the aim of preventing immigration abuses.

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Frances D'Emilio in Rome and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.

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