Italy says thousands may flee Libya violence

Nov 30, -0001
ROME: Italy warned on Wednesday that hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in Libya could try to cross the Mediterranean by boat and called for help from European partners.
"The immigration situation in Libya, which had been stopped or slowed down in recent years, could resume dramatically if the current situation of a real civil war leads to a collapse of the system," Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told parliament.
"We're talking about 200,000, 250,000, 300,000 people whose only hope is to reach the gates of the European Union by sea," he said.
"This is a prospect that not just Italy but the whole of the European Union should prepare for in the near future.
He said Italy condemned the violence in Libya and that estimates that around 1,000 people may have been killed in the unrest were credible.
"There is nothing that can justify mass slaughter on the streets," he earlier told a congress on Muslim-Christian relations.
Interior ministers from European Union countries on the Mediterranean including Greece, Spain, France, Malta and Cyprus were due to meet in Rome on Wednesday to discuss the refugee situation.
Italy has been relatively subdued in its condemnation of the violence in Libya, an OPEC country which supplies a quarter of its oil needs and with which it has rapidly built up a web of energy and infrastructure ties over the past few years.
The centre-left opposition has been fiercely critical of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for his reticence in criticising Gaddafi, a leader with whom he has cultivated close personal relations.
Italy's potential vulnerability to the unrest in Libya was underlined in Wednesday when Industry Minister Paolo Romani said authorities would the increase pumping of gas from northern Europe to offset the reduction of supply from Libya.
Berlusconi said it was important that violence be avoided but that there was concern about the possibility that if the Gaddafi government fell, it could be succeeded by a fundamentalist regime.
"We note with great pleasure that the wind of democracy has blown over this country," he said in a speech to local politicians in Rome.
Major Italian companies from the country's largest bank Unicredit to oil major Eni, aerospace and defence group Finmeccanica and construction group Impregilo have significant ties to Libya.
Frattini said successive Italian governments since the early 1990s had concentrated on building up links with Libya, which as well as supplying oil is also a vital partner in controlling illegal immigration from North Africa. But he said the use of violence on the Libyan population was unacceptable.
"There is obviously a limit," he told reporters. "Faced by what is happening now, we cannot fail to raise our voice as the whole international community has done."
Gaddafi, who caused a major upset during a visit to Rome last year during which he attempted to convert hundreds of young women to Islam, himself singled out Italy for criticism in a speech on Tuesday in which he vowed to fight to the end.
He said Rome had supplied weapons to the insurrection, but Frattini told parliament the accusation was completely untrue. AGENCIES





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