NATO Aegean mission launched to stop people smugglers

Three warships to travel to sea between Turkey and Greece

NATO Aegean mission launched to stop people smugglers

File photo of a convoy of NATO warships Image: Gero Breloer / AP/Press Association Images

NATO is sending three warships to the sea between Turkey and Greece to crack down on those smuggling desperate people into Europe.

German government sources say that Germany, Greece and Turkey asked NATO to start monitoring the Aegean Sea to give a "clear view" of how people smugglers are working on the Turkish coast.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference that three warships, currently stationed near Cyprus, were being sent to the Aegean "without delay" to "start maritime surveillance activities".

The full plans are yet to be confirmed by NATO's generals but intelligence gathered is likely to be given to Turkey's coastguards, rather than NATO acting directly, according to NATO diplomats.

Mr Stoltenberg said refugees were not the targets of the mission, adding: "This is not about stopping and pushing back (refugees)...but about critical surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks."

Turkey is the main transit country for the more than one million migrants and refugees who arrived in Europe in 2015 - Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War Two.

Many are from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and those in northern Africa. They attempt to cross the Aegean Sea to reach Greece and then move on to richer countries such as Germany, France and Scandinavia.

But of more than 70,000 people who have crossed the sea this year, more than 300 have died, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

There are fears that thousands more people could yet attempt the dangerous crossing as they flee conflict and poverty.

Since March 2011, for example, the war in Syria has killed more than 260,000, displaced half of the population and shows little prospect of a resolution.

US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said: "There is now a criminal syndicate which is exploiting these poor people.
"Targeting that is the greatest way an effect could be had."

Meanwhile, two suspected people smugglers have gone on trial in Turkey charged with causing the death of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi.

The three-year-old's body was found washed up on a Turkish beach, one of the hundreds of people to have drowned trying to reach Greece, but the photographs of him shocked the world.

Syrians Muwafaka Alabash and Asem Alfrhad are accused of smuggling migrants and causing the deaths of five people, including three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, his five-year-old brother Galip and their mother Rihan.

They face up to 35 years in jail if found guilty.