Illegal immigrants unravel Libya treaty

 ROME | A friendship agreement between Italy and Libya is falling apart barely a month after it was signed over accusations that the North African country failed to curtail the flow of illegal immigration.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni on Tuesday accused Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi of reneging on the agreement by failing to prevent thousands of desperate illegal immigrants crossing the Mediterranean to Sicily, drawing a harsh reaction from Libya.

Mr. Maroni, a leader of the separatist Northern League party in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi´s coalition, said that in retaliation, Rome has suspended the delivery of 30 police motor-launch boats that Tripoli had bought. A ship loaded with the boats has been held up at the port of La Spezia, Mr. Maroni told RAI state-run Italian television.

Col. Gadhafi and Mr. Berlusconi signed the friendship treaty in the Libyan city of Benghazi on Aug. 30. Under the 25-year, $5 billion treaty, Italy also agreed to compensate Libya for abuse suffered as an Italian colony, including the killing of an estimated 100,000 Libyans by Italian forces.

Mr. Maroni on Monday threatened to withhold any compensation payments under the agreement and said Rome also was considering denying Tripoli a $400 million investment in a satellite network to control Libya´s vast southern frontiers in the Sahara Desert.

Mr. Maroni said he intends to travel to Libya next month at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to persuade the Libyan strongman to crack down on the emigrants. He said he would sail to Libya on one of a number of Italian patrol boats that Rome has promised to deploy in Libya to work jointly with the Libyan navy to curb emigration.

His remarks provoked a sharp reaction from the Libyan People´s Bureau, or embassy, in Rome.

“We have never asked for help from any country,” the Libyan ambassador said in a statement that the Italian news agency ANSA said had been dictated by Col. Gadhafi. “So it is totally irrelevant that a ship has been blocked at La Spezia with 30 small craft aboard.”

The statement also said Libya would refuse to receive Mr. Maroni if he arrives in a “spectacular manner” on a patrol boat.

“If we want to receive him, we will be the ones to indicate the date and the way to arrive,” it said.

A Western source in Tripoli said it has always been doubtful whether Libya intended to take action on the flow of immigrants into Europe.

“The Libyans prefer to allow the exodus to continue because they believe they can get still more money from the European Union in the future,” said the source, who asked not be further identified lest it jeopardize his position in Libya.

Italy´s capacity for coping with the influx of illegals arriving on rafts and rusting hulks from Libya is said to be “collapsing.” Some 6,500 illegals have been crammed into reception centers intended to house 3,000, the Interior Ministry said.

The Northern League set off a storm two years ago when another politician from the party, Roberto Calderoli, wore a T-shirt in Italy´s parliament emblazoned with a copy of the Danish cartoon about Islam that outraged Muslims worldwide.

The incident set off rioting in front of the Italian Consulate in Benghazi that left two dead and many wounded.

Mr. Berlusconi’s government was elected on a promise to bolster security and curb illegal immigration. Libya’s failure to honor the deal is an embarrassment to the center-right government.

Italy´s treaty with oil-rich Libya was one of a series of openings the Gadhafi regime has brokered with the West, climaxing in a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Tripoli earlier this month.