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NATO ships to patrol Aegean in response to migrant crisis

A U.S. sailor aboard the USS Carney looks out over the sea as the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer operates in the Aegean Sea on Dec. 15, 2015.

PETER HALVORSEN/U.S. NAVY

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 11, 2016

A fleet of NATO ships under German command is moving into the Aegean Sea to crack down on human smugglers in an effort to stem the flow of migrants making the dangerous crossing from Turkey to Greece.

“Europe is facing the greatest refugee and migrant crisis since the end of the second World War,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday during a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels. The migrants are “driven by conflict and instability on our southern borders, as well as the criminal networks that traffic in human suffering.”

Stoltenberg said the objective isn’t “about stopping or pushing back refugee boats.”

“NATO will contribute critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks,” he said.

The decision to send three alliance ships was made in response to a request from Turkey, Greece and Germany, all countries that have been strained by a heavy influx of refugees. As part of the effort, NATO also will increase surveillance of the Turkish-Syrian border.

“We will start to act immediately,” said Stoltenberg on the second day of talks in Brussels among alliance defense ministers.

NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2, now deployed in the region, will lead the effort. More ships are expected to soon be joining the mission, which is tasked to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of the illegal crossings.

“Several allies have announced that they are ready to reinforce this group, so I expect it to be increased in the near future.”

Also on Thursday, NATO said it will provide surveillance aircraft to take part in counter Islamic State operations in Iraq and Syria. The decision was in response to a U.S. request for NATO Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, a sophisticated reconnaissance plane that can survey hundreds of miles of territory.

“Our military planners are now working out the details,” Stoltenberg said.

“The decision will increase the ability of the coalition to degrade and destroy the terrorist group ISIL which is our common enemy,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter commended allies for stepping forward to assist on the effort to curb illegal migration out of Syria, which has been a destabilizing force for countries in the broader region. NATO military leaders will continue to assess and adapt the mission as needed, Carter said.

As part of the deal, Greece and Turkey agreed to refrain from sending military assets into one another’s respective waters and airspace.

Stars and Stripes reporter Andrew Yurkovsky contributed to this report.

vandiver.john@stripes.com