The EU announced Wednesday it will suspend ship patrols that have rescued tens of thousands of migrants since 2015 in the Mediterranean and brought them to Italy, after deep resistance by populist-led Rome.
European Union diplomats agreed that the operation would be officially extended six months beyond its March 31 expiry date, but no longer deploy ships and instead rely on air missions and coordination with Libya.
"Member States have decided to extend the mandate of Operation Sophia for six months with a temporary suspension of its naval assets while member states continue working on a solution related to disembarkation," an EU official said in a statement.
The EU has credited the mission with having stopped smugglers taking migrants on dangerous sea crossings, but anger in Italy effectively put an end to rescue operations through Sophia a year ago.
The anti-migration government that took power in Rome last year has insisted it should not have to carry the burden of dealing with migrants rescued at sea.
In demanding other EU states take in more, Rome has also blocked non-government organisations from disembarking migrants rescued at sea in Italian ports.
Efforts to adjust Operation Sophia in the long term have beached on the broader question of how to reform the EU's so-called Dublin asylum rules, which stipulate that the country of first arrival must process asylum seekers.
EU cooperation with Libya has been credited with sharply reducing the number of migrants arriving in Europe from a 2015 peak when the continent faced its worst migration crisis since World War II.
Activists however decry rampant human rights abuses against migrants in Libya as they await passage to Europe and urge the EU to not outsource the problem to Tripoli.