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Italy and Libya Tackle Illegal Immigration

August 26, 2004

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi met Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi on Wednesday for talks on stemming the tide of illegal immigrants using the North African country as a transit point.

Colonel Gadhafi continues to fight his long-standing pariah statusImage: AP

One day earlier, some 275 people trying to enter Italy illegally landed on Lampedusa, a small island off Sicily. Authorities said they believe the ship set sail from a Libyan port.

It's an all-too-familiar scenario. Italian officials estimate some two million people are currently waiting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya, which attracts a steady flow of illegal immigrants from Africa and Asia. To many, Italy represents a passageway to the rest of Europe.

Co-operation needed

During his talks with Colonel Gadhafi, Berlusconi stressed the problem was neither Libyan nor Italian only, but needed the co-operation of both Europe and Africa.

In early August, Italy agreed to train Libyan police with a long-term view to launching joint air, sea and land patrols. Italy also recently called on the EU to help in the effort to battle illegal immigration by relaxing the embargo against Libya so that it could buy military equipment to help clamp down on the problem of human smuggling by increasing patrols along its borders.

Gadhafi's rehabilitation

Gadhafi, a pariah for much of his 34-year rule because of his links to international terrorism, has won back much credibility after announcing in 2003 that he would abandon the pursuit of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Berlusconi was the first Western leader to meet Gadhafi after the announcement. Since then, the leader has undergone a surprise rehabilitation among countries that cold-shouldered his government for years, welcoming British Prime Minister Tony Blair in March this year and embarking on an historic visit to Brussels several weeks later. The same month, the US lifted sanctions, making the OPEC member once again a lucrative destination for Western energy companies.

A close relationship

As Libya's main trading partner, Italy has played a key role in re-integrating the North African state into the international community.

Italy occupied the oil-rich country from 1911 to 1943 and suffered a bloody uprising in 1915 in the port city of Sirte, Gadhafi's home-town, 500 km east of the capital Tripoli. Wednesday's talks also included discussion of Libya's long-standing request for Italian reparations for decades of occupation.

The trip was not without controversy. The Italian prime minister ignored militant threats to unleash a "jihad" on the North African State if his trip went ahead. Other Islamist groups also recently threatened to attack Italy in retaliation for its presence in Iraq.