By Julia Fioretti
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union plans to launch a mission to help Italy cope with swarms of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa, the EU said on Tuesday.
Called Operation Triton, the mission will be managed by Europe's border control agency, Frontex. It will reinforce Italy's own rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, which began after 366 people drowned just a mile from the Italian island of Lampedusa when their boat capsized a year ago.
Italy has repeatedly called for more help from the EU to cope with the record number of sea-borne arrivals from conflict-torn Libya and Syria over the past year. Mare Nostrum, or "Our Sea," has been costing Italy 9 million euros a month, straining the resources of its navy and coastguard.
"With the launch of the Triton operation, tailored to the needs and requests defined by the Italian authorities, the EU can show concrete solidarity to Italy, by reinforcing its border surveillance and supporting its humanitarian efforts," said EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom in a statement on Tuesday.
Frontex has called on member states for contributions to the new mission, which is expected to cost 2.9 million euros ($3.66 million) a month, so that it can begin on Nov. 1.
In addition to two Italian patrol vessels, Frontex is hoping for two surveillance aircrafts and three more vessels to patrol the waters up to 30 miles from Italy's southern coast.
EU officials said Germany, France and Spain had already indicated they would help, although they could provide no details on what the three countries might contribute.
More than 100,000 migrants have arrived by sea so far this year in Italy, and in September the International Organization for Migration reported than almost 3,000 people had drowned in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in 2014.
Questions remain over the future of Mare Nostrum, which was originally envisaged as an emergency response to the flows of migrants from North Africa. Last Friday, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Mare Nostrum would not be stopped until the EU came up with something just as good or better.
Given that Triton's budget is just a third of Mare Nostrum's, it is unclear how Frontex would manage to patrol the seas if Mare Nostrum were to be abandoned.
(Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Editing by Larry King)