By MARIA SANMINIATELLIAssociated Press
NEW YORK (AP) - Italy will expand its economic and social commitments in Libya even as the North African country continues to battle problems that range from unsecured borders to dangerous armed groups, Italy's foreign minister said Friday.
A former colonial ruler of Libya, Italy has decades-solid trade ties with Tripoli, including extensive gas and oil interests.
"We are encouraging Libyan authorities to urgently tackle the issue of safety," Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi told The Associated Press in an interview on Friday.
He noted that Libya's weak security instability contributed to the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, along with three other Americans in an attack on the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi. And Libya's unsecured borders are a top priority that "must be resolved rapidly," Terzi said.
"We want to expand our partnership with this country, which is so important economically and politically," Terzi said.
He gave no details, but Italy's ties to Libya are strong.
Italy was Libya's colonial ruler in fascist times and went on to develop into Libya's largest trading partner as old resentments matured into mutually beneficial economic ties - worth €11 billion before trade was halted in February with the outbreak of civil war. Italy also is dependent on the Arab country's oil.
But Libya has suffered a big security vacuum following last year's killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi and the collapse of his regime.
The void was quickly filled by local militia groups formed initially of rebel forces that fought Gadhafi's forces in an eight-month rebellion. Since then, they have grown in number and their ranks swelled with youths ready to take the law into their own hands.
"Italy is viewed by Libyans as their first point of reference in Europe," Terzi said. "We intend to increase our presence in every field."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.