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Italy Close to Signing Deal to Curb Illegal Immigration - 2003-06-27

Italy's prime minister says his country is close to signing a deal with Libya, in an effort to curb illegal immigration. But a top Libyan official says his country has no intention of accepting the proposed deal, under which Italian troops would patrol the North African country's ports and borders.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been coming under mounting pressure from within his ruling coalition government - and from the opposition - for failing to stem the endless arrivals of illegal immigrants on Italy's shores.

Mr. Berlusconi addressed parliament Thursday on the issue of illegal immigration, which has dominated Italian politics for weeks. He said Italy is negotiating with Libya, and is close to reaching an agreement to allow Italian soldiers to patrol Libya's ports, and Italian ships to patrol Libyan waters.

While Mr. Berlusconi did not detail exactly when such an agreement would be signed, he did say that negotiations were at a very advanced stage. But, in an interview with the Italian daily la Stampa, Libya's foreign secretary, Abdulrhaman Shalgham, rejected the claim, saying his country would not accept a foreign military presence on its territory.

Italy's interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, who recently came under fire for his handling of the endless stream of desperate people reaching Italy's southern shores, is expected to travel to Tripoli in the coming days.

Rome has promised Libya that, in return for its collaboration, it will press the European Union to relax its arms embargo.

Hundreds of illegal immigrants have been arriving in Italy nearly daily by boat from North Africa. The numbers have exceeded 3,000 since the start of June. Many of these people use makeshift boats and around 200 are believed to have drowned in shipping accidents.

The Italian government is convinced that, in order to stop the flow, cooperation is required with the countries of origin of the immigrants. Italy negotiated an agreement with Albania a few years ago, following massive arrivals of Albanians. Now Italian helicopters and police vessels patrol Albanian ports, and the numbers coming across the Adriatic have dropped significantly.