Europe steps up pressure on Libya

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Europe Correspondent  |  Feb. 21, 2011 at 10:55 AM
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BERLIN, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Worried about a civil war in Libya that could unleash a wave of refugees, Europe is slowly stepping up pressure on the dictatorial regime of Moammar Gadhafi after mass demonstrations continued to rock the country Monday.

Following days of deadly clashes between anti-government protesters and Libyan security forces, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Sunday condemned "the repression against peaceful demonstrators and deplore the violence and the death of civilians."

She called on Libyan authorities to stop blocking the Internet and the mobile phone network, as well as to allow the international media to report on the demonstrations.

Most European nations have issued travel warnings for Libya and are preparing to evacuate their citizens as the North African country tumbles on the brink of what could turn into a civil war. The European Union's 27 foreign ministers met Monday in Brussels to discuss the crisis.

Mostly unconfirmed reports have suggested that more than 200 protesters were killed in clashes in Tripoli and Benghazi in eastern Libya. The unrest comes on the heels of regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt and demonstrations in Bahrain and Iran but the determination of the Libyan regime to violently quell protests has shocked observers.

One of Gadhafi's sons, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, in remarks on state television said the regime would fight against the uprising to "the last man standing."

His father has been ruling Libya for the past four decades and is infamous for a brutal reign, his support of terrorism in the 1980s and a determination to travel everywhere with his personal tent.

Geneva human rights group UN Watch cites witness reports claiming that special commandos and regime loyalists have attacked demonstrators with knives, assault rifles and heavy-caliber weapons.

"Snipers are shooting peaceful protesters. Artillery and helicopter gunships have been used against crowds of demonstrators," UN Watch said in a statement Monday.

The group is one of 24 non-governmental organizations that have sent a letter to U.S., EU and U.N. authorities, urging a bolder stance against the violence in Libya.

Just as during the demonstrations in Egypt, initial European reactions to the unrest in Libya have been careful.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who fosters close ties with Gadhafi, over the weekend said he didn't want to "disturb" his North African ally by meddling in his affairs. This has sparked an angry outcry from the Italian left-wing opposition, which has long criticized Berlusconi for ignoring Gadhafi's human rights abuses for the sake of bilateral business deals.

Michael Emerson, a senior foreign policy expert at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, lauded Ashton's statement but said more steps, including sanctions, could be put on the table if the situation worsens.

"The mass killings in Libya certainly belong in a different category than what happened in Egypt and Tunisia," Emerson said Monday in a telephone interview with United Press International Monday.

An important energy supplier to Europe, Libya has strong business ties with Italy.

The Libyan regime is also playing a role in preventing African fugitives from reaching European shores. A deal between Rome and Tripoli to stop migrants from crossing the Mediterranean has been criticized by human rights groups.

In light of the most recent unrest, European officials are worried that Libya could descend into civil war and unleash a wave of refugees that could reach European shores.

Writing on his Internet blog Monday, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said a "total breakdown in Libya isn't at all unthinkable."

"In the Mediterranean countries, concern for what it may mean is great," he wrote. "A massive flood of refugees, is, at the moment, a very real possibility and will place demands on European solidarity."

Well aware of the European concerns, Libya over the weekend threatened to suspend cooperation on illegal migration if the EU continues to encourage pro-democracy protests in the country, the Hungarian EU presidency said Sunday.

Libya has more than 1,200 miles of coastline and shares land borders with six African countries. Italy has been aching under the influx of thousands of migrants from Tunisia following unrest there. Around 5,000 migrants have reached the small Italian island of Lampedusa over the past days and Rome has asked Tripoli to prevent further mass emigrations.

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