Italy's close ties with Libya run deep

AP News
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Posted: Feb 22, 2011 4:27 PM
Italy's close ties with Libya run deep

Few countries have as much at stake in Libya as Italy, an energy-poor country needing both Libya's oil and its cooperation in keeping potential boat people far from its nearby shores.

With Italy's Eni, the main foreign operator in Libya taking home a full one-third of the north African nation's oil production, it is no surprise that a succession of Italian governments have sought a cozy relationship with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi _ none less than the extravagant embrace by current Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi spoke Tuesday afternoon with Gadhafi by telephone and asked him to put a stop to the violence against anti-government protesters, Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said.

"Gadhafi responded that the violence was mostly against Libyan military personnel," La Russa told reporters after an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the Libyan turmoil and its impact on illegal migration to Italy, according to the LaPress news agency.

Italy's close geopolitical ties with Libya _ and the fact its islands are just a few hundred miles (kilometers) from Libya's coast _ has not brought only flows of oil, but also tides of less-welcome immigrants.

Italy was one of the few European countries to adopt a measured tone about the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Libya, which has killed at least 250 people in a week of unrest. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini began by expressing concern about a possible civil war and breakup of Libya, saying he feared that an Islamic state could be set up in the area of the North African country bordering Egypt.

Berlusconi's first reaction to the crackdown was to say Gadhafi was too busy to call. It was only on Monday evening that Berlusconi issued his first official statement about the bloodshed, expressing alarm at the "unacceptable use of violence against the civilian population."

Opposition politicians say Berlusconi's close friendship with Gadhafi _ including mutual visits to each others' countries _ has prevented the Italian leader from taking a lead role in trying to halt the bloodshed and use his influence to engineer the ouster of Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya since 1969.

"Italy has been behaving with extraordinary lightness in the face of a dictator," opposition figure Francesco Rutelli said on RAI public radio. "We have confused economic interest with cooperation and control of illegal immigration with Libya with an irresponsible appeasement."

The reality of illegal immigrants has become a central point of recent diplomacy _ the threat in the current crisis has been underlined by Libya's assertions through diplomats that it would open the floodgates if the EU backs the protesters.

A deal with Libya in 2008 to return would-be migrants intercepted at sea to Libya without screening them first for asylum reduced arrivals in Italy from 36,000 in 2008 before the deal took effect to 4,300 in 2010. The agreement was condemned by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for violating migrants' rights to seek asylum and flee oppression, human crises or war.

Italy has little appetite for new arrivals, after the influx of 5,000 Tunisians after the uprising in that North African country. The Tunisian flow continued Tuesday, with two boatloads carrying 200 Tunisians and a third carrying dozens more headed to the island of Lampedusa.

Oil and natural gas remain among Libya's strongest draws for Italy, and business has often mixed with pleasure and politics.

Eni's chief executive attended an extravaganza staged for Gadhafi in Italy last summer hosted by Berlusconi, including Bedouin-clad riders astride horses shipped from Libya for the occasion. Earlier, Gadhafi had passed out copies of the Quran to young Italian women recruited by a modeling agency and paid to attend sessions at the Libyan Embassy.

Eni, Italy's largest gas and oil company, has been operating in Libya for more than 50 years, encompassing all of Gadhafi's rule, and its close relationship is in lockstep with Italy's ties with the North African nation, which Rome had occupied from 1911 to 1941.

Italy's ties with Libya run deeper and longer than Berlusconi's relationship with Gadhafi. For example, Italy's government warned Libya a day ahead of U.S. airstrikes in 1986 to punish Gadhafi for a deadly attack on a disco in Germany.

The unrest in the former Italian colony brought early signs of trouble on Tuesday, with the natural gas pipeline from Libya losing pressure, indicating a possible blockage. Italian officials rushed to reassure the public that the gas supply in the Greenstream pipeline was uninterrupted and that Italy had plenty of reserves on hand as well as a northern pipeline.

The gas supply from Libya "has not been interrupted, but the situation is very complicated in the face of a civil war of unforeseeable proportions," Stefano Saglia, a deputy in the Economic Development Ministry, was quoted as saying by the news agency ANSA. The ministry press office confirmed the comments.

In Brussels, EU Commission spokeswoman Marlene Holzner said 12 percent of Italian gas consumption comes from Libya, and that so far the supply was not interrupted.

Libya's dependence on gas and oil revenues, which it shares with foreign producers, will mean that any subsequent government will likely want to continue long-term relations, like Eni's, said Nicolo Sartori, a defense, security and energy expert at Rome's IAI Institute.

The biggest risk is if a civil war occurs, making production difficult, if not impossible.

"The situation is absolutely very problematic," Sartori said. "Eni has a huge interest and investment in the country. It is the principal source of production for Eni, while at the same time being the largest operator. The destiny of Eni and Libya are connected."

Eni, which pumps out an average 244,000 barrels of natural gas and oil a day, said Tuesday it has suspended some production at unidentified sites, increasing security. It said it would complete its evacuation of 100 nonessential staff and family members on Tuesday, leaving behind 34 workers both in the capital, Tripoli, and at Eni sites elsewhere in the country.

Libya also has invested heavily in Italy _ a fact that is now penalizing the companies where it has become a shareholder.

Sliding shares across a range of sectors on the Milan Stock Exchange on Monday told the story of mutual, entrenched economic interests. The share price of Unicredit, Italy's largest bank; Finmeccanica, an engineering firm; and even the Turin-based Juventus soccer club all dropped along with confidence in Libya.

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AP reporters Nicole Winfield in Rome and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.