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Libya Militias Rake in Millions in European Migration Funds

by: - December 31, 2019
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(Associated Press) When the European Union started funneling millions of euros into Libya to slow the tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, the money came with EU promises to improve detention centers notorious for abuse and fight human trafficking.

Instead, the misery of migrants in Libya has spawned a thriving and highly lucrative web of businesses funded in part by the EU and enabled by the United Nations, an Associated Press investigation has found. The investigation was based on interviews with more than 50 migrants, Libyan government officials and aid workers; internal UN emails, and budget documents and contracts.

In other findings:

– Huge sums of European money have been diverted to intertwined networks of militiamen, traffickers and coast guard members who exploit migrants. In some cases, UN officials knew militia networks were getting the money, according to internal emails.

– The militias torture, extort and otherwise abuse migrants for ransoms in detention centers under the nose of the UN, often in compounds that receive millions in European money. Many migrants also simply disappear from detention centers, sold to traffickers or to other centers.

– The militias conspire with some members of Libyan coast guard units. The coast guard gets training and equipment from Europe to keep migrants away. But coast guard members return some migrants to the detention centers under deals with militias and receive bribes to let others pass en route to Europe.

– The militias skim off European funds given through the UN to feed and otherwise help migrants, who go hungry. For example, millions of euros in UN food contracts were under negotiation with a company controlled by a militia leader, even as other UN teams raised alarms about starvation in his detention center, according to internal UN emails and interviews with at least a half-dozen Libyan officials.

– In many cases, the money goes to neighboring Tunisia to be laundered, and then flows back to the militias in Libya.

– The EU’s own documents show it was aware of the dangers of effectively outsourcing its migration crisis to Libya. Budget documents from as early as 2017 for a 90 million euro outlay warned of a medium-to-high risk that Europe’s support would only lead to more human rights violations.

Despite the roles they play in the detention system, both the EU and the UN say they want the centers closed. The EU said that under international law, it is not responsible for what goes on inside the centers, and that it relies on the UN to spend European money for Libya wisely.

The UN said it has to work with whoever runs the detention centers to preserve access to vulnerable migrants. After two weeks of being questioned by the AP, UNHCR said it would contract directly for food and aid for migrants as of Jan. 1 2020 instead of going through intermediaries.

Dozens of Iraqi Shiite militiamen and their supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday, smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, angered over deadly U.S. airstrikes targeting the Iran-backed militia. U.S. guards fired tear gas and palls of smoke rose over the grounds.

An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw flames rising from inside the compound and at least three U.S. soldiers on the roof of the main embassy building. There was a fire at the reception area near the compound’s parking lot but it was unclear what had caused it. A man on a loudspeaker urged the mob not to enter the compound, saying: “The message was delivered.”

President Donald Trump blamed Iran for the embassy breach and called on Iraq to protect the diplomatic mission.

“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!” he tweeted from his estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

There were no reports of casualties, but the unprecedented breach was one of the worst attacks on the embassy in recent memory. It followed deadly U.S. airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. military said the airstrikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that it had blamed on the militia.

The developments represent a major downturn in Iraq-U.S. relations that could further undermine U.S. influence in the region and also weaken Washington’s hand in its maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

Iraq has long struggled to balance its ties with the U.S. and Iran, both allies of the Iraqi government. But the government’s angry reaction to the U.S. airstrikes and its apparent decision not to prevent the protesters from reaching the embassy signaled a sharp deterioration of U.S.-Iraq relations.

Iraqi security forces made no effort to stop the protesters as they marched to the heavily-fortified Green Zone after a funeral held for those killed in the U.S. airstrikes, letting them pass through a security checkpoint leading to the area.

The mob of marchers, many of them in militia uniforms, shouted “Down, Down USA!” and “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” outside the compound, hurling water and stones over its walls. The mob set fire to three trailers used by security guards along the wall. AP journalists saw some try to scale the walls.

Others then smashed the gates used by cars to enter and dozens pushed into the compound. The protesters stopped in a corridor after about 5 meters (16 feet), and were only about 200 meters away from the main building. Half a dozen U.S. soldiers were seen on the roof of the main building, their guns were pointed at the protesters. Smoke from the tear gas rose in the area.

The protesters raised yellow militia flags and taunted the embassy’s security staff who remained behind the glass windows in the gates’ reception area. They hung a poster on the wall declaring, “America is an aggressor” and sprayed graffiti on the wall and windows reading, “Closed in the name of the resistance.”

An Iraqi employee at the embassy told the AP that the embassy’s security team had evacuated some local staff from a rear gate while others left by helicopters as the rest remained inside “safe” areas within the embassy. The employee spoke on condition of anonymity because of not being authorized to speak to journalists.

Some commanders of militia factions loyal to Iran had joined the protesters. Among them was Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the state-sanctioned paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units, the umbrella group for the Iran-backed militias.

At least three protesters appeared to have difficulties breathing from tear gas. No one was immediately reported hurt in the rampage, and security staff had withdrawn to inside the embassy earlier, soon after protesters gathered outside. There was no immediate comment from the U.S. Embassy.

Yassine al-Yasseri, Iraq’s interior minister, also appeared outside the embassy at one point and walked around to inspect the scene. He told the AP that the prime minister had warned the U.S. strikes on the Shiite militiamen would have serious consequences.

“This is one of the implications,” al-Yasseri said. “This is a problem and is embarrassing to the government.”

He said more security will be deployed to separate the protesters from the embassy, an indication the Iraqi troops would not move in to break up the crowd by force.

Seven armored vehicles with about 30 Iraqi soldiers arrived near the embassy hours after the violence erupted, deploying near the embassy walls but not close to the breached area. Four vehicles carrying riot police approached the embassy later but were forced back by the protesters who blocked their path.

There was no immediate comment from the Pentagon and the State Department.

The U.S. airstrikes — the largest targeting an Iraqi state-sanctioned militia in recent years — and the subsequent calls by the militia for retaliation, represent a new escalation in the proxy war between the U.S. and Iran playing out in the Middle East.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday’s strikes send the message that the U.S. will not tolerate actions by Iran that jeopardize American lives.

The Iranian-backed Iraqi militia had vowed Monday to retaliate for the U.S. military strikes. The attack and vows for revenge raised concerns of new attacks that could threaten American interests in the region.

The U.S. attack also outraged both the militias and the Iraqi government, which said it will reconsider its relationship with the U.S.-led coalition — the first time it has said it will do so since an agreement was struck to keep some U.S. troops in the country. It called the attack a “flagrant violation” of its sovereignty.