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Merkel to support Italy in tackling migration challenge

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday she wanted to support Italy in its efforts to reduce the number of migrants arriving on its shores, possibly handling asylum requests for Europe in non-European countries including Libya.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures as she leaves after a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (not pictured) at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Most migrants attempting to reach Europe from Africa take the sea route from Libya to Italy, though last year saw a spike in numbers departing from Morocco to Spain instead.

“Italy is one of the countries that is receiving a lot of refugees as a first arrival country,” Merkel told reporters before talks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

“We want to support Italy in its call for solidarity and hope that Germany will also be met with understanding when it comes to solidarity in Europe with the issues of migration.”

Merkel said her talks with Conte and other European leaders in coming weeks would focus on the question of how the European Union could enable a stable government in Libya and how its coast guard could be better trained.

“And how we can, if necessary, already carry out asylum-related proceedings there. These are all questions that we will discuss in the coming months and where we want to work very closely together,” Merkel said.

Matteo Salvini, interior minister in the anti-establishment government that took office this month in Rome, has adopted a policy of blocking foreign humanitarian boats from Italian ports, which has triggered heated exchanges with France and the Netherlands.

Conte has spoken of the need for European-run immigration offices outside Europe to prevent “voyages of death”. More than 3,000 migrants died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2017, according to the U.N. Migration Agency (IOM).

During the short news conference with Merkel in Berlin, Conte said the European Union had to change its position on migration. “I think Germany is aware of this too,” he added.

Italy wants to adapt current EU asylum guidelines in favor of “a new approach that is more harmonious, so that whoever sets foot in Italy, sets foot in Europe”, Conte said.

The European Commission said on Monday it was confident that EU leaders could agree at a summit next week on handling migrants and refugees, but some diplomats were much less optimistic.

Reporting by Michael Nienaber in Berlin and Crispian Balmer in Rome, editing by John Stonestreet