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World

Rising Death Toll Of Migrants Turns EU's Attention To Smugglers

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's report now on a Navy force that has been patrolling the Mediterranean Sea. It's led by the EU. The mission is to rescue migrants and capture human smugglers. There has been a rising death toll on the sea route from Libya to Italy. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The Italian aircraft carrier Cavour is in port at Augusta, Sicily. Crew members do maintenance work on its 800-foot long flight deck. It's the flagship of Operation Sophia. That's the name of a Somali baby born during a rescue last summer. Rear Adm. Andrea Gueglio, the force commander, says phase one focused on gathering intelligence on how the criminal gangs operate.

ANDREA GUEGLIO: So we have a very clear ideas about what they normally do at sea, both in terms of driving themselves, especially the big wooden boats, or escorting those boats with a much smaller skiff.

POGGIOLI: Once the escort boats reach international waters, the EU ships can intercept and capture them. Since June, 18 suspected traffickers were handed over to Italian authorities.

GUEGLIO: We are aware that we are in front of a very wide organization, well-organized, able to have an effective command and control. And we see at sea what we can define as a soldier or the troops of this organization.

POGGIOLI: Gueglio acknowledges the masterminds are elusive.

GUEGLIO: We don't know actually if they are precisely in Libya or somewhere else. They are using even satellite communication. So in this very interconnected world, they could be even somewhere else.

POGGIOLI: According to Italian media, one suspect is helping investigators follow the money trail. Only a small part of the 1,500 euros required for sea passage, he claims, is paid in cash. Most goes through money transfer networks, not to Libya but to northern European countries. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Augusta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.