Italy reacts cooly to Gaddafi 'hate' claims

Italy reacted coolly on Friday to threats from Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi of further attacks on Italians if Tripoli’s historic compensation claim for decades of colonisation by Rome remains unheeded.

Gaddafi said rioters who sacked the Italian consulate in Benghazi two weeks ago had wanted to kill the consul because Libyans “hate” Italians.

The comments in a televised speech on Thursday mark a new low in relations between Italy and its former North African colony.

“Libyans hate you—not the Danes—and I cannot rule out other attacks if damages for the colonial period are not forthcoming,” Italian newspapers quoted Gaddafi as saying in the speech.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini played down the comments, which come at a sensitive time in relations between the Mediterranean neighbours.

“We mustn’t give too much credence to it, because it’s clear it was more a speech to his supporters than him taking a responsible position in the international sphere,” Fini said in a statement.

But he demanded Libya adhere to accords with Italy, including a deal to grant visas to thousands of resident Italians forced out of Libya in 1970, an event celebrated annually under Gaddafi.

“Colonel Gaddafi’s latest speech is no help in this regard,” said Fini.

Relations have dipped sharply after Libyan rioters razed the Italian consulate in Benghazi on February 17.

Gaddafi claimed they were outraged over a T-shirt worn by an Italian minister which lampooned the prophet Muhammad in the style of the original satirical drawings in a Danish newspaper.

The minister, Roberto Calderoli, was subsequently forced to resign by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has sought closer ties with oil-and-gas rich Libya since his election in 2001.

Calderoli’s party colleague, Justice Minister Roberto Casini, said on Friday: “It seems to me that Gaddafi’s speech justifies Calderoli.”

Eleven people were killed in clashes with police and 69 injured.

The consul, his staff and family were evacuated to Tripoli, and in some cases, back to Italy.

“The regrettable events [in Benghazi] are a result of the accumulated wrongs since 1911, of repression and injustice suffered by the Libyan people under Italian occupation,” explained Gaddafi.

He said in his speech in Syrte that the people of Libya hade not taken their revenge.

He called on Italy to “compensate the Libyan people for the deaths and refugees [of the colonial period], to avoid a [social] explosion against its interests, its companies and its nationals.”

“Libya will take the lead in a campaign to repay colonised peoples, so that injustices against nations are not repeated.

Italy is keen to ensure that the recent violence and now, Gaddafi’s comments, does not derail years of painstaking diplomatic rapprochement with its former colony, which Rome ruled from 1911-1943.

Relations improved after a 2004 accord between Berlusconi and Gaddafi, in which Italy notably promised to fund a €six-billion highway in Libya.

Italy is still Libya’s top trading partner and more than 50 Italian companies operate in the country, home to around 1 000 Italians. Libya supplies about 30% of Italy’s energy needs.

Last year Rome agreed to provide patrol vessels to help Libya stem a tide of illegal immigrants bound for Italy.

But this has notably failed to resolve the all-too-apparent tensions between the two countries.
- Sapa-AFP

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