The European Union's foreign policy chief called on Libya's government on Sunday to end the bloody crackdown that has engulfed parts of this North African country, where some 200 were reported dead following clashes between protesters.
"We've been urging restraint and we continue to do so," Catherine Ashton said ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers called to discuss the rapidly evolving situation in the Middle East and North Africa. "It's very important that the violence stops."
"I'm really worried about what's happening in Libya at the present time," Ashton told reporters.
The crackdown in oil-rich Libya is shaping up to be the most brutal repression of anti-government protests that began with uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
The protests spread quickly around the region to Bahrain in the Gulf, impoverished Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula, the North African neighbors of Tunisia - Libya, Algeria, Morocco - and outside the Middle East to places including the East African nation of Djibouti and even China.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said 173 people have died in three days of unrest in Libya, which has seen commandos and foreign mercenaries loyal to longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi attack demonstrators with assault rifles and other heavy weapons.
In their Sunday meeting, the EU was considering economic, political and other ways in which the bloc can help the region engulfed in uprisings. These include a broader package of economic assistance to the countries involved. No immediate decisions were expected either at Sunday's informal dinner talks or at a regular monthly meeting of foreign ministers on Monday.
Italian foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Rome, which has strong political and economic ties with Libya, which it occupied for 30 years until 1943, is following very closely the whole situation in Northern Africa.
Italy is the closest neighbor to both Libya and Tunisia, and we are very worried about the repercussions on migration, he said.
Thousands of migrants have already arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, following the Jan. 14 ouster of Tunisia's longtime president and a breakdown in coastal patrols.
Ministers said the EU will consider new ways of supporting pro-democracy reforms in the region.
"This is a real opportunity for the EU to reflect and find a way forward that will bring together our resources more effectively, not just for the short term but also for the long term," Ashton said.
Ashton will travel to Cairo late Monday. She will be the first top Western official to visit Cairo since the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak.
She is scheduled to hold talks on Tuesday with Egyptian government officials, opposition leaders and youth and women's groups.
The EU already provides billions of euros in aid to countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, the Palestinians, Syria and Tunisia.
Finland's Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said the ministers would also discuss the EU's help to Italy in stemming the flow of migrants from North Africa.
"Something very big is happening no one knows exactly what," Stubb said. We've already seen it in Egypt and Tunisia, there is a lot of movement in Libya and in Bahrain.
He said that Libya is a huge enigma.
"All we can do at this stage is call for nonviolence," he said. "To be quite honest, I wouldn't put anything past Gadhafi."
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