ROME/MILAN Eni's chief executive has contacted rebels in Benghazi about energy cooperation, as the Italian oil and gas group moved to protect its role as the leading foreign oil operator in Libya.
Eni's efforts were supported on Monday by Italy giving Libyan rebels its full backing.
CEO Paolo Scaroni had phone contact with representatives of the rebels' National Transitional Council in recent days, Italy's foreign ministry said. Eni declined to comment.
That corrected an earlier comment by minister Franco Frattini who said Scaroni visted Benghazi two days ago and had meetings on restarting cooperation on energy with the council.
There had been concern that state-controlled Eni's position in Libya could be undermined by Italy's hesitant backing for the rebel movement, paving the way for a greater say for French group Total and maybe British firms.
Britain and France led the drive for intervention in Libya to protect rebels from strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, long Gaddafi's closest European ally, was subdued in supporting rebels at first, while key coalition partner the Northern League opposed intervention.
Eni, present in Libya since the 1950s, is the biggest foreign oil company there, producing 270,000 boed (barrels of oil equivalent per day) in 2010 . Its contracts are in force to 2042 for oil production and 2047 for gas.
Early in March, Scaroni called on Europe to abandon sanctions against Libya, adding relations with Tripoli had not been hurt and Lybia's National Oil Corporation (NOC) was its main interlocutor.
Before the air strikes, NOC head Shokri Ghanem said Eni's contracts were safe. Since then, Ghanem has said Libya was considering offering oil block contracts directly to China, India and other nations it sees as friends.
"Eni is sitting pretty. The gas pipeline from Libya goes to Italy and the rebels will need that. They will also need the group's oil experience," said Stefano Casertano, senior fellow at German think-tank BIGS-Potsdam.org.
At 1510 GMT, Eni shares were up 0.7 percent, with the European oil and gas sector up 0.3 percent.
(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Dan Lalor)