WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama pledged Friday to work more intensely with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on threats coming from instability in Libya that have led to an influx of migrants across the Mediterranean.
Obama and Renzi told journalists after an Oval Office meeting that they discussed economic and security concerns, including Ukraine and Islamic State militants. Obama said they also spent a significant amount of time discussing their shared concern over Libya.
"Given Italy's leadership role across the Mediterranean, the prime minister and I agreed to work together even more intensively to encourage cooperation on threats coming from Libya, including the growing ISIL presence there, as well as additional coordination with other partners in how we can stabilize what has become a very deadly and difficult situation," Obama said, using an acronym for Islamic State militants.
Italy is struggling to cope with an influx of migrants who are risking their lives to flee instability in Libya and other parts of North Africa and the Middle East by crossing the sea.
Italian police reported this week that Muslim migrants had thrown 12 Christians overboard during a recent crossing from Libya. An aid group said another 41 were believed to have drowned in a separate incident. The tragedies followed earlier reports of 400 people presumed dead in the sinking of a ship near the Libyan coast.
Renzi said he appreciates the assistance from the United States and he and Obama were "fully on the same page."
"In the next few weeks, we will see that we will reach the fruits of this commitment," Renzi said. He said it's not just a security matter. "It has to do with the justice and the dignity of mankind."
With Italy mired in a recession, Renzi also sought and received Obama's backing for his economic program, though it has yet to significantly improve the country's fiscal outlook.
"I have been very impressed with the energy and the vision and the reforms that he is pursuing to unleash the potential of the Italian people and the Italian economy," Obama said. "His willingness to challenge the status quo and to look to the future has made him a leading voice in Europe. And we're already seeing progress being made with respect to Italy."
Obama said he looked forward to hearing Renzi's assessment of the "ambitious economic reforms that he's pursuing to make Italy more competitive and to reinvigorate the Italian economy as a source of growth in Europe."
Renzi praised Obama's stewardship of the U.S. economy and in particular noted the drop in unemployment from double digits at the start of his administration to the current 5.5 percent as well as growth in gross domestic product.
Italy has had the opposite experience: growth in unemployment and a decline in GDP, Renzi said.
"Something just did not work at home," the prime minister said. "This is why I believe that the experience of the United States government is a model for the European economy, and that we have to be very careful about budgets, about the limitations, about our commitments."
Renzi said Obama showed an appreciation for Tuscan wine on a visit to Italy last year, so he "brought a few bottles of wine for Barack."
Obama said he intended to sample it.
"I'm not lucky enough to have any Italian ancestry that I know of, but I consider myself an honorary Italian because I love all things Italian," he said.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.
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