Italy urges Mike Pompeo to promote peace among Libya’s warring parties

US Secretary of State visits Rome for talks with ‘steadfast partner’

epa08708615 Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio (R) greets US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) during a press conference at Farnesina Palace in Rome, Italy, 30 September 2020.  EPA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
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Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio has said Rome is looking to Washington to exert pressure on Libyan combatants following a meeting with his US counterpart.

Mr Pompeo, US Secretary of State, arrived in Italy on Wednesday, the second in a series of visits to America’s European allies. Earlier in the week Mr Pompeo met officials in Greece to discuss the two countries’ strategic partnership.

After meeting Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte for an hour, Mr Pompeo held talks with his Italian counterpart to discuss the civil war in Libya, as well as issues including Italian relations with China.

"We are counting heavily on the influence that the US will be able to exert on Libyan interlocutors and international actors,” Mr Di Maio said.

The Italian foreign minister said that his country wished to avoid any “sabotage” of ongoing peace talks on Libya.

epa08708038 A handout photo made available by the Chigi Palace Press Office shows Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte (R) during his meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at Chigi Palace in Rome, Italy, 30 September 2020.  EPA/Chigi Palace Press Office/ Filip HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (R) during his meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at Chigi Palace in Rome, Italy, 30 September 2020. EPA

Italy has looked with concern across the Mediterranean at Libya since 2011 as the violence that plagued the country after the toppling of 40-year ruler Muammar Qaddafi escalated into civil war.

Rome has been encouraged by UN peace talks between the warring Libyan parties in recent months. In August, the two sides in the conflict agreed to a ceasefire. At Montreux in Switzerland earlier in September, negotiations brought agreement on the creation of a unity government and subsequent elections.

Further talks are expected to begin next week, the UN’s Libya mission announced on Wednesday.

While the US played a pivotal role in the Nato-backed intervention against Qaddafi, alongside Italy, it has since largely withdrawn from Libya and the wider region.

In a statement, the State Department said Italy remained a “steadfast partner” on Nato’s southern flank.

Troops loyal to Libya's internationally recognized government patrol the area in Zamzam, near Abu Qareen, Libya September 15, 2020. Picture taken September 15, 2020. REUTERS/Ayman Al-Sahili
Troops loyal to Libya's eastern government patrol the area in Zamzam, near Abu Qareen, Libya. Reuters  

Meanwhile, Mr Pompeo hit out at China. Washington has been concerned by Rome’s increasingly close relations with Beijing since it became the first major Western economy to join the Belt and Road Initiative last year.

"The foreign minister and I had a long conversation about the United States' concerns at the Chinese Communist Party trying to leverage its economic presence in Italy to serve its own strategic purposes," Mr Pompeo said.

"The United States also urges the Italian government to consider carefully the risks to its national security and the privacy of its citizens presented by technology companies with ties to the Chinese Community Party."

Mr Di Maio said Italy remained fully committed to its Western partners and understood the US position.

"On the issue of the 5G, I told Secretary Mike Pompeo that we are well aware of the concerns of our US ally and fully realise the responsibility faced by every country when dealing with security," he added.

The US Secretary of State also used a symposium at the US embassy in the Vatican to criticise the Catholic Church for pursuing closer ties with Beijing.

"Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than in China," Mr Pompeo said. He did not meet with Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, because of its links to China.

On Tuesday, before he departed Greece, the US Secretary of State expressed support for talks between Athens and its neighbour Ankara. The two Nato allies' relations have deteriorated to the point where both had warships facing off in the Mediterranean Sea.

His comments, however, angered Turkey, which accused Mr Pompeo of not being impartial.

EU leaders will address the eastern Mediterranean tensions on Thursday. Talk of sanctions on Turkey have faded since Athens and Ankara moved toward dialogue, though the risk has weighed on Turkey's lira which has hit record lows this month.

Cyprus has repeatedly called for sanctions. After a meeting with his Spanish counterpart Arancha Gonzalez Laya, Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides said: "Cyprus looks to the EU and its partners for solidarity in action."

"Concretely upholding our common values and interests, and implementing our own decisions is of the essence," he added.

Also ahead of the summit, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter to EU leaders - excluding Greece and Cyprus - saying Greece and Greek Cypriots caused the regional tension, adding he hopes they will show an unbiased approach on Thursday.

"Our expectation from the EU is to remain objective, treat everyone equally and back dialogue and cooperation," Mr Erdogan said in the letter sent on Wednesday.