EU calls for ‘dialogue’ in Libya amid US warnings

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As violence in Libya continues to spread, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has condemned repression there and appealed for "dialogue". Meanwhile, the US yesterday (20 February) issued a strong statement threatening to take "all appropriate actions" in response.

Libya's unrest spread to the capital Tripoli on Sunday after scores of protesters were killed in the second city Benghazi, which appeared to have slipped out of control of forces loyal to Gaddafi.

According to credible reports, at least 233 protesters were killed in the protests against the dictatorial regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

In the first sign of serious unrest in the capital, thousands of protesters clashed with supporters of Gadaffi in Tripoli. Gunfire could be heard and police using tear gas to disperse the demonstrators.
In Benghazi, the centre of Libya's unrest, tens of thousands of people took to the streets and appeared to be in control of the city before security forces opened fire and killed scores.

Benghazi residents said soldiers from a unit had joined their protest and defeated a force of Gaddafi's elite guards. Bodies were brought to a hospital riddled with bullets and wounds from rocket-propelled grenades.

A witness in Tripoli said police in the capital were using tear gas against protesters, some of whom were throwing stones at billboards of Gaddafi.

The US State Department said it had raised strong objections with Gaddafi's government about the "use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators".

With Washington stepping up pressure on Tripoli, one of Gaddafi's sons, Saif al-Islam, said on state television that his father would fight against the popular uprising to "the last man standing".

Obama's administration also signalled that the Libyan government might face consequences if it did not take heed of warnings to rein in its security forces and respect its citizens' right to protest.

"We are considering all appropriate actions," the US official said, without elaborating.

EU reaction

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton issued a statement on Sunday, condemning the repressions against peaceful demonstrators and deploring the violence and the death of civilians.

"The legitimate aspirations and demands of the people for reforms must be addressed through open and meaningful Libyan-led dialogue," said Ashton in a statement released after a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

Ashton also called on the Libyan authorities to immediately cease the blocking of the Internet and the mobile telephone network, as well as to allow the media to work freely trough the country.

Immigration threats

Libya has told the European Union it will stop cooperating on illegal migration if the EU continues to encourage pro-democracy protests in the country, the bloc's Hungarian Presidency said on Sunday.

"The Hungarian ambassador was called in Libya on Thursday and was given the message that Libya is going to suspend cooperation with the EU on immigration issues if the EU keeps making statements in support of Libyan pro-democracy protests," a spokesman for Hungary, which holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency, said.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Italy, which has widespread business interests in Libya, particularly in the energy sector, was concerned about developments.

"We are following very closely all the situation. Italy as you know is the closest neighbour, both of Tunisia and Libya, so we are extremely concerned about the repercussions on the migratory situation in the southern Mediterranean," he said.

Libya has frequently threatened to cancel cooperation with the EU on illegal migration in the past. In December, a minister said Libya would scale back efforts to stem the flow of migrants unless the EU paid five billion euros a year.

The International Organisation for Migration estimates that migrants from across Africa account for about 10% of Libya's six million population, although only a minority of those attempt to travel on to Europe to find work.

Tens of thousands of illegal migrants try to make the journey from the northern coasts of Tunisia and Libya to islands off Italy every year, with hundreds having to be rescued by Italy's coastguard and housed in migration centres.

Libya is a major energy producer with significant investment from Britain's BP, Exxon Mobil of the United States and Italy's ENI among others.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

The rights group UN Watch issued a message urging citizens to put pressure on decision-makers to react more strongly against the violence in Libya.

The statement reads: "Artillery and helicopter gunships were used against crowds. Thugs armed with hammers and swords attacked families in their homes. Women and children in the city of Benghazi were seen jumping off a bridge to escape."

"Unlike the situations in Egypt and Bahrain, in Libya there is no TV coverage, no reporters, no Internet, and limited telephone connections. The regime is trying to hide its crimes from the world, to prevent international pressure," it said.

"The silence of the world powers is deafening. We cannot allow this massacre to continue. Mohamed Eljahmi and other Libyan human rights defenders are pleading for our help"

"Stand up for innocent victims: Urge the US, the European Union, and the UN not to turn a blind eye to this bloodbath. Click here to take action now."

Italian opposition lawmakers criticised Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for failing to condemn the violence in Libya and saying he did not want to "disturb" Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during the revolt in his country.

Pressed by reporters on whether he had spoken to Gaddafi since the uprising began, Berlusconi said on Saturday: "No, I haven't been in contact with him. The situation is still in flux and so I will not allow myself to disturb anyone."

The comment triggered outrage among the leftist opposition, which has long accused Berlusconi of turning a blind eye to Gaddafi's human rights record and pandering to the Libyan leader for the sake of lucrative contracts and investment in Italy, which is Libya's former colonial ruler.

"Adding to the deafening silence of the Italian government on the bloody repression in Libya and other Mideast countries is the disconcerting - to say the least - declaration by Silvio Berlusconi that he does not want to disturb Gaddafi over the dozens left dead on the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli," said Piero Fassino of the main opposition Democratic Party.

Other legislators said they were "disgusted" by Berlusconi's comments.

One newspaper headlined its story "Don't disturb the slaughterer", while the influential newspaper of Italy's Catholic Bishops, Avvenire, called on Rome to use its "privileged relationship with Tripoli" to press for an end to the "bloody repression" in Libya.

Muammar Gaddafi has ruled Libya since taking power in a military coup more than 40 years ago, on 1 September 1969. In theory, Gaddafi holds no official position in his 'government by the masses', or 'Jamahiriya'. But in practice he rules the country, as basic civil liberties have been sidelined and opposition is not tolerated. 

Libya endured economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation as a result of terrorist attacks in the 1980s, which were believed to have been commissioned by Tripoli. These included the Lockerbie bombing, the explosion of a French airliner above the Sahara Desert in 1989 and the bombing of a Berlin disco in 1986. 

In recent years oil-rich Libya has gradually been improving its relations with the West. Tripoli paid compensation to the Lockerbie victims and was able to repatriate the sentenced perpetrator of the terrorist attack, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, "on compassionate grounds" as he is said to be suffering from prostate cancer. Megrahi's release unleashed a storm of protest across the world. 

The West's 'double standards' with oil-rich Libya have often been criticised by rights groups.

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