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Malta's Foreign Minister George Vella takes part in a joint news conference with his Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni (not pictured) at the Foreign Ministry in Valletta, Malta, March 10, 2016. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi(reuters_tickers)
By Alastair Macdonald
VALLETTA (Reuters) - Libya's U.N.-backed government has not accepted proposals by Rome aimed at cutting migrant flows to Italy and the two sides are "far apart" on the issue, Malta's foreign minister said on Friday.
George Vella, whose government holds the rotating chair of European Union ministerial councils, said he would brief his EU counterparts in Brussels on Monday on a long conversation he held on Thursday on behalf of the Union with the foreign minister of Libya's embattled, U.N.-backed premier, Fayez Seraj.
Asked by reporters about unpublished proposals which Rome has put to Seraj in an effort to curb an expected surge in people taking to boats in Libya in the hope of being rescued and taken to Italy, Vella said the Libyans were considering the ideas. He declined to detail the Italian proposals beyond saying that their aim was to reduce the flow of migrants.
"They are far, far apart," Vella said. "Their positions are totally different ... It's not a question of money ... It's a wide-ranging discussion ... It's a question of what the Libyan government thinks would be acceptable to Libyans."
EU officials say the Union aims to agree a common position on Libya soon to back up Italy's initiatives. Rome has said these include helping secure Libya's southern desert frontier against people-smuggling and other trafficking.
Last week, after Italy's interior minister visited Tripoli, his ministry said he had agreed with Seraj that the two countries would cooperate against people-smugglers and that Rome would promote investment in the oil-rich country.
Italy is reopening an embassy in its former colony and is keen to avert a new surge in migrant arrivals after taking in a record 180,000 people last year, mostly from Libya.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi took funding from Rome in return for holding back African migrants heading north. Since he was overthrown in 2011, numbers have soared and anarchy in Libya has left Europeans struggling for ways to reduce the flow.
Vella noted that the EU is aiming to increase funding to and cooperation with African and Middle Eastern governments to stem migration pressure. He said he saw cooperation with Egypt, also on the transit routes, as an important element in the strategy.
He said he would consider the idea of EU-backed centres to process asylum claims in Egypt or other countries to help reduce numbers making journeys on which thousands died last year alone. "I would be willing to discuss practically anything," he said.
Echoing comments by Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on Thursday, Vella, whose tiny island country lies on the sea route from Africa to Italy, said he was concerned about increasing Russian involvement in Libya following its role in Syria's war.
Describing recent contacts by a rebel Libyan commander with Moscow as "cavorting with the Russians", he said: "I'm not comfortable. We all know the Russians' dreams have always been to have bases in the Mediterranean."
(Editing by Andrew Roche)