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Thu 24 Feb 2011 01:21 AM

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EU prepares Libya sanctions as thousands flee escalating violence

European Union sanctions could include weapons embargo and oil import bans

EU prepares Libya sanctions as thousands flee escalating violence
EU SANCTIONS: European Union stood ready to do whatever was necessary to bring Gaddafi to account (ITP Images)

European Union governments agreed on Wednesday to prepare the way for possible sanctions against Libya following Muammar Gaddafi's violent suppression of anti-government protests.

During a meeting of EU diplomats in Brussels, France and Germany pushed for the EU's 27 member states to adopt restrictive measures against Gaddafi's rule, including possible travel restrictions, an arms embargo and asset freezes.

The governments agreed to explore the measures and will decide at a later date when they might be imposed.

"In diplomatic terms, it means sanctions," said one EU diplomat who attended the meeting.

Afterwards, the EU's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, issued a statement saying the European Union stood ready to do whatever was necessary to bring Gaddafi, in power for more than 40 years, to account.

"The EU stresses that those responsible for the brutal aggression and violence against civilians will be held to account," she said, referring to the death of an estimated 1,000 people in a crackdown ordered by Gaddafi.

"The EU is ready to take further measures," she said.

Some governments, including Italy, have argued that the EU should be cautious about moving too quickly on sanctions, saying it is concerned about the possible economic repercussions and the threat of a flood of illegal migrants onto its shores.

Libya is one of Italy's closest trading partners and a major source of oil and gas for Italy and other EU states, with Europe receiving almost 85 percent of Libya's oil exports.

One EU diplomat said the sanctions, if finally approved, could include the suspension of oil and gas contracts.

The State Department said on Wednesday Washington would also consider possibly freezing assets belonging to Libya's government and Gaddafi but no decision had been taken yet.

A concern among some EU states is the safety of EU citizens living in Libya if sanctions or other measures are enforced too quickly. Up to 10,000 EU citizens are based in Libya and are in the process of being evacuated by air and sea.

The extent of sanctions imposed on Libya will also be subject to debate, with many of the bloc's governments facing competing economic interests, particularly in terms of energy supplies and investment. Malta and Cyprus are close to Libya.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said earlier if the Libyan government continued to perpetrate violence against its own people, sanctions would be unavoidable.

There are also concerns among EU states about immigration. Gaddafi has fuelled alarm in the EU by saying last week he would stop cooperating with the bloc on stemming the flow of migrants to the EU from Africa.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini estimated that up to 300,000 could flee Libya towards Italy's coast.