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EU reluctantly examines Guantanamo, asylum demands

Brussels — Whether it is to host Guantanamo detainees or asylum seekers, the EU’s services are in high demand, but member nations, which examine both thorny issues Thursday, do not want to be forced into anything.

At a meeting in Luxembourg, European Union interior ministers plan to finalise a mechanism for exchanging information about any former inmates who might be allowed in to the bloc.

US President Barack Obama has said he would close the notorious "war on terror" prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba by January 2010 and is seeking host states for up to 60 of the 245 inmates.

The EU loudly demanded the closure of the jail, where prisoners have been held often without charge or trial, and have welcomed Obama’s decision to finally shut it.

But national laws differ widely among the 27 EU countries and they are struggling to define a common position on how best to help. None want to be bound to host inmates held under such circumstances and for so long.

Any inmates accepted would only be those "cleared for release" by US authorities, but no legal definition of this status exists and EU nations disagree over exactly what it means, officials say.

It also comes at a politically delicate time, with European Parliament elections to be held Sunday.

"These are extremely sensitive matters," said an official close to EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot, who will take part in Thursday talks.

They are also in the "exclusive competence" of EU governments, and "for the moment, they are more concerned about security issues," he said.

Italy, for one, refuses to host any former detainees.

As there are no border checks inside the 25-nation Schengen zone, "we cannot permit ourselves the liberty of leaving people suspected of terrorism at liberty," Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said Saturday.

He said he planned to raise the problem in Luxembourg, and underlined that he was "not favourable to accepting these detainees in countries not having the legal means to keep them in prison."

France — which last month admitted an Algerian ex-Guantanamo prisoner — along with Spain and Britain, which has allowed British nationals from the camp, want to rapidly seal an agreement.

Other nations, notably Germany, Greece and the Netherlands, feel this would be premature while Washington has not yet finalised its own policy on Guantanamo, or taken some inmates in itself.

Barrot will also try to encourage countries from northern Europe to help their southern neighbours, like Malta, Italy, Greece or Spain, deal with an influx of illegal immigrants from Africa.

More than 67,000 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea to seek asylum in Europe in 2008 — half of them arrived in Italy and Malta — according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.

The number of clandestine immigrants reaching Italy grew by 75 percent last year over 2007, and expanded by 65 percent over the same period in Greece.

With those numbers set to grow as the weather warms, the commissioner wants countries to look at ways to share the burden of those in the south, although some believe it would be better to focus on countries like Libya.

Libya regularly serves as a jumping off point for would-be immigrants from Africa seeking an Eldorado across the sea in Europe.

But for the moment, no country wants to be forced to take migrants in, just as those who accept former Guantanamo detainees would do so only on a case-by-case and voluntary basis.

Christian Spillmann/AFP/Expatica