Friendship is notoriously fickle when it is forged between political leaders.  No less so across the Mediterranean.

Just a year ago this week, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi arrived in Rome to great fanfare, flanked by his statuesque  guards and a stable of Arab show ponies.

The visit was to commemorate the second anniversary of an historic  $US5 billion accord between Italy and Libya, under which Rome had agreed to pay compensation for its colonial rule of the North African country between 1911 and 1947.

During Gaddafi’s visit he was feted by government and business leaders and paid Italian women to attend lectures about the value of the Koran and equality under Islam.

He pitched a Bedouin tent in the heart of the capital and invited Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and other VIPs to an evening of horsemanship presented by 30 of his favourite riders .

The 2008 treaty helped change Libya’s status from a pariah to a respectable partner and gave the green light to a series of bilateral investments worth an estimated at $US58 billion.

Oil and gas supplies were at the centre of the deal but there was a pledge to build a new highway and other infrastructure projects. Libyan authorities also happened to have a 7.6% stake in Italy’s largest bank, Unicredit, and a small stake in the Italian defence giant Finmeccanica.

Under the accord, Gaddafi agreed to stop the flow of illegal immigrants washing up on Italy’s southern shores and Rome pledged to refrain from any military action against Tripoli. Oops.

The treaty is now in tatters after a reluctant Berlusconi agreed to join NATO’s military action against the Gaddafi regime early this year and ever since about 25,000 illegal immigrants have landed on the southern island of Lampedusa from Libya — with or without Gaddafi’s approval.

Now amid the latest reports that members of Gaddafi’s family have fled to Algeria, the colonel is nowhere to be found and Italy’s billionaire leader is looking for new friends in Tripoli.

Berlusconi is not wasting any time. Last week he met the head of the  National Transitional Council, Mahmoud Jibril, in Milan and immediately moved to unfreeze €350 million of Libyan assets held in Italian banks.

Excuse me for asking since this is obviously something between “friends”, but there did not appear to be any questions about revenge attacks or guarantees about the council’s ability to form a government to represent ordinary Libyans in a post-Gaddafi regime.

“He (Jibril) confirmed what he told me on the telephone that there was a willingness to include all members of political and social forces in the next government and a strong determination to avoid any kind of vengeful action towards the losers,” Berlusconi confidently told the media.

Berlusconi and Jibril agreed to set up a “joint committee” in anticipation of Gaddafi’s fall and the Prime Minister talked about providing aid to train police and reopen schools.

Significantly, the leaders were joined by Paolo Scaroni, the chief executive of the Italian power giant Eni, who pledged to provide oil and gas to the new Libyan regime, in exchange for access to the fields that Eni had been forced to abandon.

As violent clashes continued on Monday,  Scaroni led a delegation to Benghazi to sign a memorandum of understanding that would restore its role as Libya’s biggest oil and natural gas producer.

Italy, an energy-starved nation, got nearly a quarter of its crude oil and 10% of its natural gas from Libya and can ill afford to have its operations idle or going slow.

Eni halted almost all of its activities in the country during the conflict and currently produces only about 50,000 barrels per day compared to 280,000 barrels per day before the start of military operations.

Scaroni said Eni needs up to 18 months to return to normal activities because of the damage caused to its installations.

As Jabril launched an “urgent appeal to all Western friends” to unfreeze billions of dollars that remain off limits,  Italy seemed to be on the front line in its bid to win friends and secure new alliances in the war-torn country.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey