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Pope urges leaders: keep Libyan civilians safe

A Libyan boy stands on top of a destroyed military vehicle belonging to the forces of Muammar Gaddafi outside Benghazi (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

Pope Benedict XVI has appealed to political and military leaders to protect the safety and security of civilians and guarantee the free flow of humanitarian aid inside Libya.

He said the “worrying news from Libya” in the past few days caused him “deep trepidation and fear,” and he kept the North African country’s people in his prayers during his Lenten retreat.

Speaking to pilgrims gathered in St Peter’s Square yesterday for the recitation of the Angelus, the Pope said: “I address a pressing appeal to those who have political and military responsibilities” to ensure the safety and security of defenceless citizens as well as guarantee those offering emergency assistance have access to those in need.

As US, British and French military began a series of strikes against Libya’s air defences as part of a U.N.-approved effort to protect pro-democracy protesters from retaliation by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Pope said he was following the events with great concern and praying for those involved in “the dramatic situation”.

He prayed that “peace and concord would soon reign over Libya and the entire North African region”.

Meanwhile, Bishop Giovanni Martinelli of Tripoli, Libya, criticised the rash and hasty decision to use military action against Gaddafi rather than pursue a negotiated solution.

“I hope for [Gaddafi’s] surrender, but I think that Gaddafi will not give in,” he told the Italian news agency, ANSA, March 20.

The bishop said he is familiar with the Libyan leader’s personality and past behaviour and believes the use of military force against him will only intensify the severity of Gaddafi’s reaction.

He said allowing foreign troops to launch a military offensive against Gaddafi “has given the go-ahead to the wrong strategy”. He said more could have been done in seeking a diplomatic or negotiated solution to the crisis.

“Violence only brings violence,” he said.

The Italian bishop said he had been working to mediate the crisis through a Libyan-funded interreligious organisation called the World Islamic Call Society, but that the launch of military strikes cut short his attempts.

“The military action was too hasty, too sudden,” he said.

Bishop Martinelli told Fides, news agency of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples: “War does not solve anything.”

“We need to cease shooting immediately and begin mediation straight away to resolve the crisis peacefully. Why have diplomatic means not been considered?” he said.

He told both ANSA and Fides that he had been hearing explosions and that people were fleeing the capital, but he said he was not leaving Tripoli.

“This is my home,” he told ANSA, and the Church is an important point of reference for the Christians in Libya, many of whom are refugees from Eritrea or workers from the Philippines and sub-Saharan Africa.

He told Fides that he was working to help Eritrean refugees trapped in Libya get to the border of Tunisia.

He said he “spoke with the bishop of Tunis to see if they can accept them, given that on their side of the border there are international humanitarian aid organisations.”