ROME (Reuters) - Opposition lawmakers criticised Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for failing to condemn violence in Libya and saying he did not want to “disturb” Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during the revolt in his country.
Berlusconi’s government, which has aggressively courted Libyan petrodollars and rolled out the red carpet during Gaddafi’s multiple visits to Italy, has said little on Libya’s crackdown on protesters that has killed more than 170 people.
Pressed by reporters on whether he had spoken to Gaddafi since the uprising began, Berlusconi said on Saturday: “No, I haven’t been in contact with him. The situation is still in flux and so I will not allow myself to disturb anyone.”
The comment stirred outrage among the leftist opposition, which has long accused Berlusconi of turning a blind eye to Gaddafi’s human rights record and pandering to the Libyan leader for the sake of lucrative contracts and investment in Italy, which is Libya’s former colonial ruler.
“Adding to the deafening silence of the Italian government on the bloody repression in Libya and other Mideast countries is the disconcerting -- to say the least -- declaration by Silvio Berlusconi that he does not want to disturb Gaddafi over the dozens left dead on the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli,” said Piero Fassino of the main opposition Democratic Party.
Other legislators said they were “disgusted” by the comments and that Italy, as Libya’s closest Western ally, should be taking the lead in condemning violence by Libyan forces to quell the uprising against four decades of Gaddafi rule.
One newspaper headlined its story “Don’t disturb the slaughterer,” while the influential newspaper of Italy’s Catholic Bishops, Avvenire, called on Rome to use its “privileged relationship with Tripoli” to press for an end to the “bloody repression” in Libya.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters in Brussels on Sunday that Italy, which has widespread business interests in Libya, particularly in the energy sector, was concerned about developments.
“We are following very closely all the situation. Italy as you know is the closest neighbor, both of Tunisia and Libya, so we are extremely concerned about the repercussions on the migratory situation in southern Mediterranean,” he said.
Berlusconi refrained from commenting directly on the situation in Libya in his chat with reporters Saturday, saying only that he was “worried” about events in the entire region.
Stepping up an offensive against charges he paid for sex with an underage girl, the prime minister rushed out an audio message to supporters and phoned into to a party conference at the weekend, but did not mention Libya during either.
Instead, Berlusconi has pledged sweeping reform of the judicial system, including changes to the composition of the constitutional court and curbs on wiretaps that were central to the prostitution investigation he is embroiled in.
While the West has warily expanded ties with Tripoli since international sanctions were lifted in 2004, Berlusconi has embraced Gaddafi and the former pariah state with open arms.
Libya is a key supplier of oil to Italy and the $65 billion Libyan sovereign wealth fund has provided welcome support for Italian companies by snapping up stakes during the recession. Berlusconi in 2008 signed a friendship treaty with Libya that includes a $5 billion reparations deal for colonial misdeeds.
Despite embarrassing his Italian hosts more than once -- first showing up with a photo of a Libyan hero in Italian chains pinned to his chest and failing to turn up at an event with the parliamentary speaker on another occasion -- Gaddafi has received star treatment from Rome during his Italian visits.
Editing by Mark Heinrich