* Libya warns EU against lending vocal support to protesters
* EU’s Ashton had urged Libya to “allow free expression”
(Adds quotes from Italy’s foreign minister, details)
BRUSSELS, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Libya has told the European Union it will stop cooperating on illegal migration if the EU continues to encourage pro-democracy protests in the country, the bloc’s Hungarian presidency said on Sunday.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said during a visit to the region last week that Libya should listen to what protesters were saying and “allow free expression”.
“The Hungarian ambassador was called in in Libya on Thursday and was given the message that Libya is going to suspend cooperation with the EU on immigration issues if the EU keeps making statements in support of Libyan pro-democracy protests,” a spokesman for Hungary, which holds the EU’s rotating six-month presidency, said.
EU foreign ministers met in Brussels on Sunday to discuss the uprisings across North Africa and the Gulf with the focus expected to be on Egypt and Libya, where there have been days of protests against President Muammar Gaddafi’s 40-year rule.
Human Rights Watch has said at least 170 people have been killed by security forces in a crackdown on the demonstrations.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Italy, which has widespread business interests in Libya, particularly in the energy sector, was concerned about developments.
“We are following very closely all the situation. Italy as you know is the closest neighbour, both of Tunisia and Libya, so we are extremely concerned about the repercussions on the migratory situation in southern Mediterranean,” he said.
Libya has frequently threatened to cancel cooperation with the EU on illegal migration in the past. In December, a minister said Libya would scale back efforts to stem the flow of migrants unless the EU paid 5 billion euros ($6.8 billion) a year.
The International Organization for Migration estimates that migrants from across Africa account for about 10 percent of Libya’s six million population, although only a minority of those attempt to travel on to Europe to find work.
Tens of thousands of illegal migrants try to make the journey from the northern coasts of Tunisia and Libya to islands off Italy every year, with hundreds having to be rescued by Italy’s coastguard and housed in migration centres.
The European Commission said in October it would spend 50 million euros to help Libya tackle illegal migration and protect migrants’ rights. (Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Justyna Pawlak, editing by Charlie Dunmore and Diana Abdallah)