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Libya Says Cooperation with Italy on Migration on Track

Libya's deputy foreign minister, Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, says cooperation with Italy on curbing illegal immigration is on track, but further negotiations will probably have to wait until after Italy's general election in April. Sabina Castelfranco has more for VOA from Sicily, where the Libyan official is attending a conference on migration.

Deputy foreign minister al-Obeidi says no country has been helping Tripoli deal with curbing illegal immigration as much as Italy. He says a joint mechanism to deal with the problem was established between the two countries in 2002 and cooperation is working well.

Al-Obeidi, who is attending a two-day conference in Sicily on Migration and Dignity, told reporters Italy is helping with security, equipment, training and exchange of information.

However, al-Obeidi also said Rome must still make an effort to end animosity that still lingers from the days of Italy's colonial rule of Libya.

"We want to close this chapter of the past," he said. "The problem is Italian governments are just delaying and postponing. What we suggested is that they should put this issue in front of the Italian parliament."

Al-Obeidi said he is certain the Italian parliament will find a way to compensate Libya. This, he added, is a commitment Italy took in the Italian-Libyan declaration signed in 1998.

Libya, he said, has suggested Italy build a motorway linking Libya to Egypt along the coast. Meanwhile, Italians born in Libya have been complaining they are not getting visas that they were promised following a visit by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to Tripoli.

Al-Obeidi says he is confident that this issue will be resolved in the framework of the negotiations, after elections next month in Italy.

"We are just waiting for this election, which will take place in April. And then whoever will be involved, whether Berlusconi or the other party, we'll continue our talks with them," he said. "We are neighbors, we cannot live apart from each other."

In the meantime, to combat illegal immigration, Italy's is giving Libya assistance to help it patrol its 1,700 kilometers of coastline. The two countries are also cooperating in dealing with repatriations of illegal migrants who reach Italian shores.

The Libyan official said Italians have also been helping with the building of centers where illegal immigrants are held before being repatriated to their countries of origin. Al-Obeidi said there are five such centers operating in the country. Repatriation of migrants, he said, is arranged with the embassies of the relevant African countries.

The International Organization for Migration is opening an office in Tripoli, which should be operational April 1. IOM official Laurence Hart said the priority in Libya is the management of irregular migration. He said at least 6,000 people are being held in centers in Libya at present.

Hart says a two-fold information strategy will be carried out for these migrants.

"One, in the centers, for those people who are in the centers to make them aware that there is a possibility to return in a safe and humane way to their country of origin [connecting] them to a reintegration scheme, and, secondly, checking with those embassies of those communities which are largely present in Libya to see which vulnerable cases we can assist in terms of return," he said.

Hart says most of the illegal immigrants in the centers come from Niger, Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt and Sudan.