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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU foreign ministers condemned the killing of anti-government protesters in Libya on Monday and pledged to support democratic transition resulting from the unrest that has swept across North Africa and the Middle East.
At a meeting in Brussels, ministers expressed alarm at the violence and concern about the possibility of an influx of illegal migrants from North Africa after Libya's threat last week to stop cooperation in stemming the flow.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called on the Libyan authorities to ensure proper protection for foreign nationals, including 3,500 Britons, and assistance for those trying to leave the country.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's four-decade-old rule appeared in increasing jeopardy as anti-government protests reached the capital for the first time in a revolt that has cost the lives of more than 200 people.
Hague told reporters in Brussels he had seen some information to suggest Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela, a country led by his ally President Hugo Chavez. A senior source in the Venezuelan government denied this.
In a statement, EU ministers said the council of EU states condemned all violence in the southern Mediterranean unrest.
"In particular the Council condemns the ongoing repression against demonstrators in Libya and deplores the violence and the death of civilians," it said.
"Freedom of expression and the right to assemble peacefully are human rights and fundamental freedoms of every human being which must be respected and protected."
The EU statement said the bloc was ready to launch "a new partnership" in its relations southern Mediterranean countries "to support the process toward democracy, rule of law, social economic development and strengthened regional stability."
It said this would involve "more effective support to those ... pursuing political and economic reforms."
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said EU states were likely to ask the European Parliament to back a medium-to-long term strategy to support development of infrastructure, investment and the private sector in the region after it already approved a one billion euro boost in development funding.
Frattini said Europeans were concerned about the threat of much greater illegal migration as a result of the Libyan unrest, which Italy is already facing from Tunisia.
While calling for a "Marshall Plan" to assist North Africa and the Middle East, Frattini, whose prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has close ties to Gaddafi, said Europe should not give the impression of trying to "export our democracy."
"We have to help, we have to support peaceful reconciliation," he said.
Tens of thousands of illegal migrants try to make the journey from the northern coasts of Tunisia and Libya to islands off Italy every year, with hundreds having to be rescued by Italy's coastguard and housed in migration centres.
Libya has frequently threatened to cancel cooperation with the EU on illegal migration in the past and its latest threat came after EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said last week that Libya should "allow free expression."
Ashton, who was due to visit Egypt later on Monday after the overthrow of the authoritarian government there, told a news briefing specific initiatives to help the region and promote democracy and human rights in the region would be discussed in coming days, including market access issues.
Germany on Monday stressed the need for a proper opening of EU markets to exports from North African and the Middle East in order to assist the region effectively.
However, a push to create a free trade area in the Euro-Mediterranean region to include key North African imports such as olive oil, citrus fruits and textiles has been blocked by southern European states with competing industries.