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Italy foreign minister visits Libya amid migrant controversy

United Nations began bringing vulnerable African refugees directly to Italy from Libya on Friday
Libya's unity government Foreign Minister Taha Siala (left) welcomes Italy's Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Saturday (AFP)

The foreign minister of Italy, which has been helping Libya to combat illegal immigration to Europe, made a brief visit to Tripoli on Saturday.

Angelino Alfano met officials of Libya's UN-backed unity government and paid a call at Tripoli port to an Italian naval vessel whose crew has been assisting the Libyan coastguard.

Italy's Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said earlier this month his country could "hold its head high" over its treatment of migrants, after rights group Amnesty International accused Rome and other EU governments of being "knowingly complicit" in abuses of migrants in Libya.

Libya has long been a transit hub for migrants seeking a better life in Europe, but people smugglers have stepped up their lucrative business in the chaos that has engulfed the country since its 2011 revolution.

"Finally, the spotlights have been turned to the human rights situation in Libya. This is to our credit," Gentiloni said.

On Friday, the United Nations began bringing African refugees to Italy from Libya, evacuating them from detention centres where conditions have been condemned by relief groups as inhumane.

It was the first time the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Libya had evacuated refugees directly to Europe. An Italian C-130 military plane landed at an airport south of the capital carrying 110 women and children, and a second flight was expected to bring more than 50 people later in the day.

The UNHCR classifies the arrivals as "vulnerable" refugees, which means they are children, victims of abuse, women, the elderly or have disabilities. 

Amnesty has warned of legal action against Rome and other EU governments over the bloc's policy of helping the Tripoli government stop migrants from travelling to Europe.