Libya rejects plan for Italian troops to patrol border

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The Independent Online

Tripoli has rejected outright a proposal by the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to stem the influx of immigrants by sending troops and naval ships to patrol the Libyan coast.

Mr Berlusconi told the upper house of parliament: "We are close to signing an agreement with Libya which envisages sending Italian soldiers to guard Libyan ports and the frontier. Our ships would be able to sail in those [Libyan territorial] waters."

But a spokesman for Libya's foreign ministry said yesterday: "Berlusconi's proposal is not even worthy of discussion. Libya is willing to co-operate to the greatest extent, but not on those terms."

Most of the immigrants entering illegally are believed to begin their sea journeys in Libya, after filtering across the border from other parts of Africa. Italy was Libya's colonial overlord from 1911 to 1952 and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime rarely misses an opportunity to lambast it for its imperial misdeeds, and to demand reparations.

The foreign ministry spokesman said the suggestion "touches on constitutional themes and principles of the sovereignty of the state, issues of extreme delicacy ... This is an Italian idea. We have not had any communication regarding sending soldiers".

Rusting hulks the press calls "handcarts of the sea" frequently land on Italian shores. Many immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and beyond take advantage of calm seas to cross to Italy during the summer, many arriving on the holiday island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily.

But this year the number of arrivals has reached a record high, with more than 3,500 turning up this month alone, filling the tiny island's immigrant reception centre.

The government's inability to check the arrivals has caused a dispute in the centre-right coalition. Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League and Mr Berlusconi's Minister for Reforms, has been reported as saying that the navy should fire on immigrant boats that ignore warnings to turn back.

The Italian Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, has been trying to persuade the European Union to modify the EU arms embargo on Libya, so its navy can buy night-vision goggles, patrol vessels and other equipment for guarding its coasts.