ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Wednesday that it is not vital for Libya to vote this year, signaling doubts about a French-led push to hold elections in December to stabilize and unify the North African country.
Italy and France are competing for influence in war-torn Libya, an oil and gas rich country which has been staging area for people smugglers who have sent hundreds of thousands of people on rickety boats toward Europe in recent years.
The nation splintered following the 2011 NATO-backed revolt that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, and since 2014 has been divided between competing political and military groups based in Tripoli and the east.
Italy has close relations with authorities in Tripoli and is the only Western country to have reopened its embassy in the Libyan capital, home to a U.N.-brokered transitional government. France is seen as closer to military commander Khalifa Haftar, who is aligned with a rival government based in the east.
Seeking to end the turmoil, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a conference in May where rival Libyan factions agreed to work constructively with the United Nations for a national election by December 10.
But after visiting Washington last month, Conte said he would organize a separate conference, with the endorsement of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Conte told journalists in Rome on Wednesday that the Italy conference will most likely be held in November.
“Italy’s primary interest is to stabilize Libya and to hold the presidential and political elections with appropriate guarantees. We are in no hurry to have the vote tomorrow, or in November or in December,” Conte told journalists in Rome.
Nonetheless, a French government spokeswoman said Paris wants to stick to the roadmap that was agreed upon in May and includes the holding of elections by the end of the year as Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last week.
Asked whether he had received any feedback from Macron over his agreement with the U.S. president, Conte answered that his “agreement with Trump is not to the detriment of any specific European country”.
More than 640,000 migrants have landed on Italian shores since 2014 on boats mostly hailing from Libya. Numbers have fallen off sharply over the past year, but the new anti-establishment government led by Conte is supporting the Libyan coast guard to try to halt the exodus from its shores.
Libya is a former Italian colony less than 300 km (190 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa, and Italy’s state-controlled oil company Eni is the biggest foreign oil producer in Libya.
“Trump has recognized a matter of fact: Libya has a strategic relevance for Italy due to historic and geopolitical reasons. The flow of migrants coming from the Libyan coast targeted mainly Italy,” Conte said.
Reporting by Giselda Vagnoni, additional reporting by Inti Landauro and Angelo Amante, editing by Steve Scherer