Reuters International

ROME (Reuters) - The European Union's Mediterranean naval force is offering to train Libyans to run a small coastguard fleet to be able to fight people smuggling in under three months, the admiral in charge of the mission said on Wednesday.

"In 14 weeks we can train the first 100 men in international waters by turning one of our ships into a school," Admiral Enrico Credendino said in an interview with Italy's la Repubblica newspaper.

"There are eight patrol boats ready for delivery that had been equipped by Italy for the Libyan government before civil war broke out," he said.

More personnel and boats will be needed, he said, but further resources will have to be set aside in Brussels first and then "in three or four months the Libyans will be able to act autonomously".

The EU force, known as operation Sophia, was set up to fight people smuggling in the south-central Mediterranean, but it cannot enter Libyan waters without an invitation from the government, of which there are two vying for power in Tripoli and Benghazi.

On Monday and Tuesday, Italy's coastguard said 5,600 migrants had been rescued, including by ships participating in the Sophia mission. More than 30,000 have come so far this year, down slightly from last year, the Italian government has said.

The Libyan coastguard has also intercepted migrant boats, with 550 turned back to Libya on Tuesday and 850 on Sunday.

Officials fear the numbers will increase as weather conditions continue to improve. Credendino said that some 150,000 migrants were in Libya and ready to make the crossing, much less than some have estimated.

"Today the estimate is that between 30 and 50 percent of gross domestic product in Tripolitania (northwest Libya) comes from people smuggling, with entire tribal clans earning money from it," Credendino said.

Islamic State militants in Libya are not directly involved in people smuggling, he said, but do extort the traffickers who operate in their territory, he said.

For the EU force to intervene directly in Libya or to impose a weapons embargo, a United Nations resolution and more resources would be needed, he said.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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