Italy and Czech Republic back Gaddafi despite bloodbath

21.02.11 @ 09:28

  1. By Leigh Phillips

BRUSSELS - The EU is struggling to speak with one voice following a massive loss of life in Libya over the weekend and the regime's vow to fight protesters to the "to the last bullet. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has spoken of her "extreme concern," while Rome does not want to "disturb" strongman Moammar Gaddafi and Prague has warned of a "catastrophe" if he falls.

  • Libyan opposition flag. Reports say authorities mowed down demonstrators with machine gunfire while snipers from rooftops picked off individuals (Photo: mshamma)

Late on Sunday (20 February), while sticking to the same script the EU has used throughout the wave of protests throughout the region of calling for 'restraint, dialogue and reform', Ms Ashton condemned the crackdown which, according to Human Rights Watch has claimed the lives of 233 pro-democracy demonstrators over the past five days.

Reports on the ground say authorities mowed down demonstrators with machine gunfire while snipers from rooftops picked off individuals, but details are hard to come by after the government blocked access to foreign journalists and shut down the internet.

"The European Union is extremely concerned about the events unfolding in Libya and the reported deaths of a very high number of demonstrators," she said in a statement as EU foreign ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss the situation in north Africa and the Middle East.

"The EU urges the authorities to exercise restraint and calm and to immediately refrain from further use of violence against peaceful demonstrators," continued Ms Ashton. "The legitimate aspirations and demands of the people for reform must be addressed through open and meaningful Libya-led dialogue."

Hungary, which currently holds the bloc's six-month rotating presidency, told the EU ministers that it received a warning from Tripoli that Libya would end co-operation on blocking irregular immigration into the EU if Brussels did not side with Gaddafi.

Ms Ashton for her part dismissed Libya's threat.

"We have heard threats, we hear people saying you should do this, you should do that, but in the end the EU will do what is right," she said.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron described Tripoli's actions as "unacceptable, counter-productive and wrong." His foreign secretary, William Hague, encouraged other countries to denounce the regime. "The United Kingdom condemns what the Libyan government has been doing ... and we look to other countries to do the same," he said.

Germany's EU affairs minister Werner Hoyer described his country's "indignation" at developments: "We are watching with great concern and indignation the violence used by state authorities in Libya and in other states."

France and Luxembourg followed suit, with French EU affairs minister Laurence Waquiez describing the repression as "completely unacceptable" and Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Asselborn saying he is "not afraid" of "a dictator who shoots at his own people".

On the other side of the EU divide, Italy is horrified at the possible loss of a close ally. Foreign minister and ex-EU-commissioner Franco Frattini is trying to convince other European states that Mr Gaddafi has promised constitutional reforms and that the bloc should allow him to make good. "Italy as you know is the closest neighbour of both Tunisia and Libya so we are extremely concerned about the repercussions on the migratory situation in the southern Mediterranean," Mr Frattini told reporters on Sunday.

The previous day, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said he did not want to "disturb" his long-time friend with appeals for restraint. "We are worried about everything happening there, in all the area," he told reporters. "I haven't yet heard from Gaddafi. The situation is evolving and so I don't feel I should disturb anyone."

On Sunday, Mr Frattini spoke about Gaddafi's reform promises with US secretary of state Hilary Clinton.

He raised with her the "possibility of a reform of the constitution that could be taken up soon by the People's Congress," a foreign ministry statement said. Both Ms Clinton and Mr Frattini agreed on the importance "in this delicate phase, of offering signs of political solidarity," the statement added.

The Czech Repblic has also warned against speaking out in favour of human rights in Libya.

Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg said the EU should not "get involved too much" and that high-minded EU appeals would only serve to "prove our own importance".

"If Gaddafi falls, then there will be bigger catastrophes in the world," he told journalists in the EU capital on Sunday. "It's no use for anyone if we intervene there loudly, just to prove our own importance."