- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2003

MADRID The European Union yesterday launched its own "navy" to patrol the southern shores of Europe and head off the flotillas that ship illegal immigrants from North Africa.
The scheme, called Operation Ulysses, involves five European nations, including Britain, which will contribute a customs cutter, Seeke. The flotilla is viewed as the first step toward a common EU border guard.
The quasi-military fleet is one of a host of measures being sought by countries such as Spain and Italy, which have complained of bearing the bulk of the costs of policing EU borders.
It is made up of naval vessels such as those belonging to Spain's militarized Guardia Civil. Italy, France and Portugal have each sent a vessel to join the fleet, each carrying about 30 sailors.
Altogether seven vessels will now be on patrol in the Mediterranean with the aim of stopping the wave of mafia-operated boats that ply the coasts.
The European Union says it is also seeking to reduce the death toll of immigrants, up to 10,000 of whom have died making the crossing in the past decade.
"We are surely seeing the birth of a common police force for the European Union to protect our borders. If we have enough success and co-ordination, this can be the base, the pillar of a future border police," said Spanish Interior Minister Angel Acebes.
Operation Ulysses is based in Algeciras, on the Strait of Gibraltar, just a few miles from the coast of Africa.
In two weeks, the vessels will also operate on the Atlantic seaboard, as in recent years the main route for sub-Saharan Africans wanting to enter Europe has shifted to Spain's Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of the western Sahara.
The patrols will form a "rectangular filter" of 6 nautical miles wide and up to 84 miles long depending on the number of vessels involved at any one time. Any boat within that rectangle can be detected.
The scheme will complement the EU-funded cordon of security towers that are being erected along Spain's coast.
A spokesman for Britain's Customs and Excise Department said the British cutter Seeke had a crew of 12 and would be based in Algeciras, from where it will first set off on a return voyage to Palermo, skirting the coast of Africa. The crew will be mainly involved in "observation and reporting."
The Strait of Gibraltar will now be one of the world's most closely watched stretches of water. In recent weeks, NATO countries such as Britain and the United States have stepped up security measures in response to a warning of an al Qaeda attack on shipping.
Six al Qaeda suspects are on trial in Morocco on charges of planning to blow up U.S. and British shipping in the strait.
Britain has recently deployed two fast-patrol vessels to Gibraltar, where it is stepping up preparations to supply and fuel naval vessels heading to the Persian Gulf region.

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