The European Union sought to reassure Libya on Tuesday that any action being considered by the 28-nation bloc to stem the deadly flow of migrants across the Mediterranean should not be perceived as an attack against the Libyan people.
After up to 900 people drowned trying to reach Europe from Libya last week, EU leaders tripled a naval search mission and agreed to "undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers."
It is unclear how that may be achieved and several leaders said they would need a U.N. Security Council mandate in the absence of a viable Libyan government. The group controlling Libya's coastal capital Tripoli said it would "confront" any unilateral EU moves to attack sites used by people-traffickers.
"I want to make it very clear there is nothing the European Union is preparing or thinking of that is to be intended against Libyan people or the Libyan authorities in all their complexity," European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters at the United Nations in New York.
Libya has descended into factional fighting, leaving the country almost lawless nearly four years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Two competing governments backed by militia brigades are scrambling for control of the oil-producing country and the chaos has created havens for Islamist militants.
Nearly 40,000 migrants fleeing war and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have made it to Italy so far this year, but almost 2,000 have died at sea. Sea crossings to Italy quadrupled to 170,000 last year as the anarchy in Libya opened opportunities for people-smuggling gangs.
"We need to make sure we have a framework of international legality in which we want to operate. There's nothing we're going to do that's outside the framework of work together with U.N. and/or in partnership with the Libyan authorities," said Mogherini.
She said Brussels was working in "strong coordination" with the EU members of the U.N. Security Council on the issue.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Sunday there is no military solution to migrants drowning in the Mediterranean.