Italy has repudiated a friendship treaty with Libya, paving the way for its bases to be used by the US and Nato to enforce a no-fly zone and future peacekeeping operations.
Under the 2008 agreement, the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi agreed to pay Libya $5 billion over 20 years as compensation for Italy’s colonial rule of Libya from 1911 to 1941, and to fund the building of a motorway along the Libyan coast.
In return, Libya pledged to use its navy and coast guard to stem the flood of African refugees trying to reach Italian territory by boat from the Libyan coast, and to grant favourable terms to Italian companies seeking to establish trade links.
But the accord also included a non-aggression clause which guaranteed that Italy would not allow the use of its territory for any “hostile act” against Libya or engage in “direct or indirect” military action against its former colony.
Had it not been suspended it would have complicated Italy’s participation in any military action against the Gaddafi regime, and the use of Italian bases by Nato forces.
Italy has a network of military facilities in the south of the country which could prove vital in any intervention, including the headquarters of the US Sixth Fleet near Naples, and airbases at Trapani on Sicily and Gioia del Colle in Puglia, in the south-east.
The Americans have a military airbase at Sigonella, in eastern Sicily, from which they fly surveillance aircraft and unmanned drones.
The suspension of the treaty marks a significant U-turn for Italy, which under Mr Berlusconi has been the staunchest European ally of Col. Gaddafi.
Italy buys around 25 per cent of its oil and 12 per cent of its natural gas from Libya, while Libya’s sovereign wealth fund has stakes in Italy’s biggest bank, UniCredit, the defence and engineering firm Finmeccanica and Turin’s Juventus football club.
Mr Berlusconi has been criticised at home and abroad for his cosy personal ties with Col. Gaddafi. He hosted him on several recent visits to Rome, allowing him to lecture hundreds of attractive young models on the appeal of Islam and pitch his Bedouin-style tent in one of the capital’s most picturesque public parks.