The U.S. Navy has kicked off the active portion of its annual maritime exercise with Mediterranean nations, bringing together naval and police forces from southern Europe and North Africa, including problem-plagued Libya.
Now in its eighth year, Phoenix Express is one of four regular exercises hosted by the Navy command for Africa to work with nations on problems such as drug trafficking, armed robbery at sea and illegal fishing. The exercise will combine vessel-tracking exercises with underway boarding drills.
Participants set up a maritime operations center at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, on Monday to begin the at-sea portion of the exercise. Other events began earlier this month at the U.S. Naval Support Activity Souda Bay, Crete.
African nations are often hobbled in their response to maritime crime by a lack of resources, corruption and complicated or unclear command structures.
The Pentagon has placed increased focus on training North African security forces in recent years following gains from insurgent groups in Algeria, Libya and Mali. Libya presents a special maritime problem, with militias in control of the critical oil port of Benghazi. Navy special operators boarded a hijacked vessel in March after it filled at the port and evaded government efforts to stop it.
The incident embarrassed the national government and resulted in the former prime minister fleeing the country. Clashes between armed groups have since followed, with a former Libyan army officer and later rebel leader announcing a campaign against the militias and attacking their positions in Benghazi and Tripoli earlier this month.