Now there are fears that the country's erratic and defiant leader Colonel Gaddafi will use the trapped Western foreigners as hostages in what is developing into a tense stand-off with the EU. Over the weekend Gaddafi threatened that if the EU criticised his crackdown on protests he would "unleash a flood" of refugees across the Mediterranean to Italy.
The past few days have seen incredible bloodshed in Libya, where Gaddafi's forces have killed as many as 519 protestors. The Libyan air force is even reportedly bombing the protestors from the skies. Yesterday two Libyan pilots landed in Malta seeking asylum, saying they had been ordered to bomb civilians in the protests.
As for the fate of Europeans trapped in Libya, it doesn't look good. Gaddafi has a history of using Europeans as hostages in his negotiations with EU countries, either arresting them on trumped-up charges or refusing to grant them "exit visas". From 1998 to 2007 he held four Bulgarian nurses on bogus charges of spreading AIDS in Libya, only releasing them after European countries took Libya off a list of state sponsors of terror. In 2008, after Swiss police arrested and then released his son Hannibal for assaulting a housekeeper in Geneva, he took several Swiss businessmen who happened to be travelling in Libya at the time hostage for a over a year.
The EU fears don't just centre around who's trapped inside Libya. They're also concerned about who will be getting out. The extreme violence going on in the country, just 356 kilometres from the EU's coast, is almost surely going to result in a huge flood of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean to Malta and Italy. That concern may have tempered EU foreign minister's unanimous reaction statement to the Libyan crisis yesterday, when they did not give the EU's high representative for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton authority to condemn Gaddafi in the strongest available terms. Italy is likely concerned that if Gaddafi goes and anarchy overwhelms Libya, they will not be able to cope with the surge of refugees. After yesterday's foreign ministers meeting in Brussels several ministers strongly condemned what is happening in Libya, particularly the ministers of Germany and Britain. But Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini said as he left the meeting, "We should not give the wrong impression of wanting to interfere, of wanting to export our democracy."
But migrants aren't the only thing crossing from Libya to Europe in huge numbers – the other is oil and gas. Libya is a huge oil exporter, and 90% of its exports go to Europe. If something were to disrupt that supply Europe's energy security could be in serious trouble. Oil prices shot up yesterday after international oil companies shut down their operations in Libya and evacuated their staff over the weekend. Today Italy had to shut down the Greenstream pipeline from Libya, losing 13% of its daily gas imports. More pipeline closures are expected. The United States does not import oil from Libya, so it would be much less affected.
Gaddafi, who has been the leader of Libya since 1969, spent decades supporting terrorist activity against the West. But over the past 15 years he's been rehabilitated, making concession to the West and making his first state visits to European capitals. There are a series of unfortunate photographs with him and various EU leaders. It was widely suspected that the Labour government secretly negotiated the release of the Lockerbie bomber in 2009 in order to get lucrative Libyan oil contracts. During this time EU countries were also selling Libya tons of weapons. Now European leaders may be rethinking that rapprochement as their newfound ally bombs his own people from the skies.
And the 2011 Arab revolt continues...
Revolution Gov changes Uprising Major protests Minor protests