- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2008

ROME | Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is hoping the signing Saturday of a treaty of friendship with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi will secure the North African strongman’s cooperation in his crackdown against rising immigration from Africa and Eastern Europe.

Mr. Berlusconi visited the Libyan port of Benghazi on Saturday to sign the friendship and economic-development treaty with Libya that included a formal pledge that Italian engineers will build the long-sought coastal highway in Italy‘s former colony, officials said.

“The accord will provide for $200 million a year over the next 25 years through investments in infrastructure projects in Libya,” Mr. Berlusconi said.

“It is my duty, as a head of government, to express to you in the name of the Italian people our regret and apologies for the deep wounds that we have caused you,” he said.

Mr. Berlusconi was also expected to try and persuade Col. Gadhafi to prevent thousands of men, women and children from leaving Libya’s coastline on tiny craft each year bound for Italy’s southern coast, the Foreign Ministry said.

But the Tripoli government had long indicated it would only will crack down on the illegal emigration if Italy met long-standing Libyan demands for financial reparations.

Col. Gadhafi maintains Rome owes Libya reparations for damages the Arab country suffered under Italian colonial rule from 1911 to 1943. The Libyan leader had long reminded Italian officials of pledges made by past Italian governments to make major infrastructure investments in Libya, Italian diplomats say.

The $5 billion agreement signed Saturday will also cover cooperation on the fight against illegal immigration, which Mr. Berlusconi termed a battle “against slave traders.”

The issue was highlighted Wednesday when a group of eight Sudanese and Eritreans were rescued by Maltese fishermen between Libya and Sicily. The survivors told the United Nations High Commission for Refugees that as many as 71 other people were thrown into the sea when a gale overturned a crowded boat after they set off for the small Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily, from the Libyan port of Zuwarah, about 180 miles away.

“If this toll is confirmed, this tragedy will have to be added to a list that is already far too long,” said Neil Fazon, the UNHCR representative on Malta.

“Even though they are aware of these tragedies, these desperate people continue to try to make the voyage to Europe,” Mr. Fazon said. “This shows these people need to be helped.”

Maltese and Italian rescue aircraft searched for the missing, thought to have included three pregnant women, but found no immediate trace of them, UNHCR spokeswoman Linda Boldrini said in Malta on Thursday. Later in the day, two German Puma helicopters attached to an EU mission on Malta spotted three bodies floating in the sea, the Italian news agency ANSA said. A Maltese navy motorboat recovered two of the three bodies, ANSA added.

Zuwarah has become a center for human smuggling in recent years, attracting emigrants who travel to Libya from all over Africa to pay for the perilous passage to Italy on often overcrowded and dilapidated boats.

Rome has offered to help the Libyan navy to curb the smuggling, but Tripoli has been reluctant to cooperate, Italian officials say. Mr. Berlusconi traveled to Tripoli in June to discuss with Col. Gadhafi the implementation of a December accord on joint maritime patrols to curtail the flow of illegal immigrants.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni earlier this month said that the number of illegal immigrants entering Italy through the first seven months of the year had doubled compared with the same time last year.

Mr. Berlusconi’s center-right government also has pledged to crack down on street crime in Italy, much of which it blames on immigrants including Roma, or Gypsies, and Romanians, many of whom have been deported despite Romania having joined the European Union.

Two Romanian shepherds are accused of attacking a Dutch couple and raping the woman last week while the pair was camping on the outskirts of Rome during what they had planned as an idyllic cycling vacation.

Police charged the men with sexual violence, kidnapping, wounding and robbery. The two were identified by police as Bohues Andrej Vasile, 20, and Paul Petre, 32.

The mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, a member of the conservative National Alliance party allied with Mr. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia grouping, visited the isolated cottage where the attack took place and denounced the Romanians as “beasts who deserve no pardon,” saying they should be expelled immediately from Italy after their trial.

“Immigration continues to pose a problem for assuring security in the city,” Mr. Alemanno told La Stampa newspaper.

Mr. Berlusconi assumed office in May promising to fight crime widely blamed on immigrants.

Last year, Romanians were detained as suspects in several high-profile crimes, including the rape of a woman on the steps of a church in Northern Italy, the fatal mugging of a Roman cyclist, and the robbery of a Milan coffee bar in which the elderly owner was beaten and her daughter raped.

After the rape and killing in November of an Italian navy officer’s wife, reportedly by a Romanian immigrant, hooded vigilantes linked to a far-right group attacked a group of Romanians in the capital with iron bars and knives.

Mr. Berlusconi’s Cabinet approved tough new measures against illegal immigrants and crime despite concerns in the European Union they could abet racism.

The laws include making illegal immigration an incarceration offense, which has outraged European human rights groups and politicians.

Property rented to illegal immigrants can be confiscated, and it will be an incarceration offense for adults to make children beg - a measure that appeared to be aimed at people known in Italy as “nomads.”

The package makes it easier to expel illegal immigrants who run afoul of the law, check the income of immigrants from the EU and crack down on abuse of the asylum system to enter Italy.

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