Italy: Libya considering constitutional reforms

Libyan authorities are considering constitutional changes as they try to cope with a week of unrest by anti-government protesters demanding political and economic reforms, the Italian foreign ministry said Sunday.

Italy has strong political and economic ties with Libya, which it occupied for 30 years until 1943, and has been watching the violent protests unfold there with a certain degree of alarm.

In addition to its interests in Libya, Rome fears any relaxation of border controls could send thousands of African migrants to Italy, as was the case when border controls collapsed following the ouster of Tunisia's longtime president last month.

On Sunday, the foreign ministry said Foreign Minister Franco Frattini had been in "close" contact with Libyan authorities, and had told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the "possibility of a reform of the constitution that could be taken up soon by the People's Congress."

No details were given.

Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi came to power in 1969 in a military coup and has ruled the country without an elected parliament or constitution since then. According to U.S. diplomatic cables posted last month by WikiLeaks, Gadhafi has supported the adoption of a constitution by Libya's supreme legislative body, the General People's Congress, and as recently as 2008 draft copies were floating among members of a committee he had appointed.

But the cables also spoke about resistance to a constitution by hard-liners who say it isn't necessary.

Protesters have demanded Gadhafi's ouster, a constitution and other political and economic reforms. On Sunday, Libyan forces fired on mourners at a funeral for anti-government protesters in the eastern city of Benghazi, a day after commandos and foreign mercenaries loyal to Gadhafi pummeled demonstrators with assault rifles and other heavy weaponry.

The Italian foreign ministry statement said the Libyan interior minister had been mediating between government institutions and the opposition for a "peaceful solution to the problems." The statement said Italy considered stability in the country to be "crucially" important for the region and Europe.

Frattini and Clinton agreed on the importance "in this delicate phase, of offering signs of political solidarity" with the countries in the region, of maintaining strong bilateral ties and coming up with joint responses by the U.S. and the EU to the crisis, the statement said.

Italian oil giant Eni has invested heavily in the oil-and-gas rich country. Libya's central bank, meanwhile, has a 4 percent share in Italy's largest bank UniCredit, which last year won the first international license to operate in the North African country.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who has hosted Gadhafi lavishly on his frequent visits to Rome, said Saturday he was concerned about the situation but hadn't called Gadhafi himself because he didn't want to "disturb" him.

Amid criticism from opposition that Italy had remained mumm on Gadhafi's crackdown, the foreign ministry late Sunday said it was following the situation closely and its embassy in Tripoli was in touch with Italians in the country "with the aim of guaranteeing their utmost security."

It issued a travel advisory Sunday strictly advising against any nonessential travel to Libya.

Berlusconi and Gadhafi in 2008 signed a friendship treaty in which Italy agreed to pay Libya US$5 billion as compensation for its colonial occupation.The agreement calls for Libya to halt the massive flow of illegal African migrants sailing from Libya, and allows Italy to turn migrants back to Libya if intercepted at sea.