TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) – The protesters who attacked the Italian consulate in Benghazi would have killed the consul and his family if the police had not opened fire, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has said of last month’s riot in which 11 people were killed.
Libya’s official news agency JANA quoted Gadhafi as telling the People’s General Congress, the closest thing Libya has to a parliament, on Thursday night that the rioters were venting their hatred for Italy rather than protesting the cartoons about Prophet Muhammad, as has been widely reported.
Gadhafi’s remarks appeared to be aimed at defending his government’s shooting of protesters throwing stones and bottles, as well as reviving the colonial charge against Italy, which occupied part or all of Libya between 1911 and 1943.
In Rome, the Italian foreign minister played down Gadhafi’s comments as intended for his constituents rather than Italy.
Elements of a crowd of about 1,000 demonstrators broke into the grounds of the Italian consulate on Feb. 17 and set fire to vehicles and part of the building. Police struggled to contain the riot, which lasted six hours, and shot dead 11 people. Thirty-five people were wounded, but no Italians were harmed.
The crowd appeared to be reacting to an Italian Cabinet minister who publicly supported the Danish publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, which had provoked protests across the Muslim world. Italian diplomats said later there was an anti-Gadhafi factor in the protest.
“Libyans do not know Denmark, they do not hate Denmark. They know Italy and they hate Italy,” Gadhafi told the congress, according to a report on JANA’s Web site on Friday. The congress met in Sirte, 225 miles (360 kilometers) southeast of the capital Tripoli.
“People would have killed the consul and his family if live ammunition had not been used,” Gadhafi said. “They said: ‘so what if the consul and his family are killed. Italy killed some 700,000 Libyans’,” Gadhafi said of the rioters, referring to colonial period.
It was the first time that Gadhafi’s government had blamed the riot on the Italian colonization, a favorite rallying cry of Gadhafi, whose father was imprisoned for opposing the Italian occupation.
The government’s initial reaction to the riot was to dismiss the Interior Minister, the Benghazi security chief and other officials for what the congress’ secretariat described as an “excessive use of force.” The government also conveyed to Rome its condemnation of the consulate attack, the Italian Foreign Ministry reported.
On Friday, Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini said in a statement: “The words of Colonel Gadhafi must be not taken too seriously, because it’s clear they were more a speech to his most trusted followers than a responsible international position.”
Fini said Italy is committed to improving relations with Libya and taking “highly significant” steps to heal the wounds of colonialism. But he added that such moves must be reciprocal, and “no help in this sense comes from the latest words of Colonel Gaddafi.”