A task force of European warships is launching a war on human traffickers smuggling illegal immigrants across the Mediterranean Sea.
Led by an Italian aircraft carrier and a French frigate, the naval flotilla also includes warships from Britain, Spain and Germany.
Other warships are in the way from Belgium and Slovenia.
The ships have air support from the Italian carrier and crews totalling almost 1,500 sailors and marines.
The ships will blockade the coast of Libya just past the international waters limit 12 miles offshore.
The aim is to deter or capture smugglers in escort boats towing smaller craft jammed with illegal immigrants heading for Italy.
Despite the focus on refugees and economic migrants pouring into Europe from the Middle East through Greece, thousands more are paying criminal gangs in lawless Libya to help them start a new life in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean.
The escort boats tow the smaller craft making the crossing into international waters and then abandon them to their fate.
Many sink and hundreds of migrants have died in their bid to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa, just 185 miles from Tripoli.
The task force has undergone training exercises in the Mediterranean to practice boarding ships at sea and live ammunition firing in simulated attacks by smugglers.
Although the task force can operate freely in international waters, maritime law prevents the ships from entering Libyan waters without a mandate from the United Nations or permission from the government.
As Libya has no recognised acting government following the overthrow of Gadhafi, no permission has been forthcoming and the authorities there lack the resources or will to tackle the migrant problem.
The European Union agreed to blockade Libya in September and has spent a few weeks assembling and training the tax force before starting the operation.
“Our aim is to arrest the traffickers and seize their ships as a warning to stop smuggling migrants or suffer the consequences,” said an EU spokesman.
“This is a military operation, not a humanitarian act and we intend to deliver a result.
“This does not mean we will endanger the lives of migrants. It’s the smugglers and their ships we are after.”
The task force says 20 escort boats have been identified and will be targeted in the coming weeks.
Only a narrow seaway outside the port of Tripoli will be left open to shipping entering and leaving Libya.