Italy’s top leaders in Tunisia to shore up ties, security

TUNIS, Tunisia — Italy’s chief of government and an array of top ministers are visiting Tunisia, a leading strategic and economic partner whose shared concerns include migration and the North African country’s unstable neighbour, Libya.

Present for Tuesday’s inter-governmental summit were Premier Giuseppe Conte, Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio and anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, plus the defence and foreign ministers, reflecting the importance Italy places on its ties with Tunisia.

After taking office last May, Conte made Tunisia his first stop south of the Mediterranean in November. Accords then included help in controlling the more than 400-kilometre (250-mile) Libyan-Tunisian border and toward development of Tunisian’s interior where jobless youths become candidates for migration.

Conte is first meeting on Tuesday morning with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi at the Carthage presidential palace.

He will then have talks with Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. They will sign co-operation agreements and hold a joint news conference.

In parallel, a delegation of about 100 Italian business leaders is participating in a bilateral economic forum.

The 2011 Tunisian revolution triggered the Arab Spring, but the budding democracy is plagued with economic and security problems.

Italian and Tunisian authorities share concerns about the current uprising in Libya. In recent days, air strikes have hit the Libyan capital as forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Hifter pursue a campaign to take Tripoli.

The country slid into chaos after longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and killed in 2011.

Under Salvini, Italy has essentially closed its ports to migrants fleeing Libya aboard smugglers’ boats.

According to interior ministry data, 722 migrants arrived in Italy in 2019 up to Monday, compared with 9,419 during the same period last year and 37,034 in 2017.

After Italy effectively shut down the Libyan smuggling route, by cutting a deal with Libyan authorities and militia leaders and beefing up the Libyan coast guard, the number of migrants plunged. Whereas Nigerian, Eritrean and sub-Saharan Africans were often the majority of the migrants coming to Italy in previous years, Tunisians now take the top spot.

As of Monday, 226 of the migrants arriving this year were Tunisians, according to the interior ministry.


Nicole Winfield in Rome and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to the story.




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