Rome sends mixed signals over military action in Libya

Matteo Renzi says he will not deploy soldiers but secret service is already active in Libya

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi: The killing in Libya of two Italian construction workers has put the traditional policy of Mediterranean “dialogue” under pressure. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Last Sunday, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi appeared on the Canale 5 programme Domenica Live (Sunday Live) and made an important statement: "As long as I am prime minister, Italy will not be invading Libya with 5,000 soldiers."

He was clarifying his position after the killing in Libya last week of two Italian construction workers put the traditional Italian policy of Mediterranean "dialogue" under significant pressure. Even before the deaths of hostages Salvatore Failla and Fausto Piano, there had been indications that Italy might shortly be called to take the lead in Libya "operations".

On February 29th, US defence secretary Ash Carter was asked at a press conference about coalition efforts to confront Islamic State, also known as Isis.

"We fully expect that when, which we hope is soon, a government is formed in Libya, it will welcome not just the United States, but also the coalition," he said. "And I should say here that Italy in particular, being so close, has offered to take the lead there."


The US ambassador in Rome, John Philips, then upped the message late last week, telling Milan paper Corriere della Sera that Italy was ready to commit 5,000 soldiers to an international force in Libya. Is Italy about to go to war in Libya?

Historic connection

However, Renzi said that the conditions were not right for a military intervention in Italy’s former colony, but the Libyan issue continues to generate a certain amount of confusion, if not to say mixed signals from Rome.

Given Italy’s historic connections to Libya, its trade links (especially oil and gas) and, above all, the delicate question of migrant flows from Libya across the Mediterranean, it is only logical that Italy sees Libya as a country of impelling strategic interest.

In February one year ago, both defence minister Roberta Pinotti and interior minister Angelino Alfano suggested that Italy was ready to lead a military force in Libya, in order to protect that strategic interest.

Alfano appeared to call on the UN to endorse a military operation when saying that, with Isis now "just south of Rome", there was a real risk that Isis would move into Italy. Alfano also underlined how the Vatican, as "the centre of Christianity", was a likely Isis target.

All of the above might not sound bellicose but it certainly sounds as if Italy believes it should be, to some extent, running the Libya show.

However, Italian public opinion is 81 per cent opposed to any Italian military intervention in Libya. One suspects, too, that Renzi has his eye on such opinion polls.

In the meantime, the situation in Libya remains unclear.  Failla and Piano, the two men killed last week, were two of four workers from the Parma-based Bonatti engineering company, taken hostage near the Libyan town of Sabratha last July.   The other two, Gino Pollicardo and Filippo Calcagno, managed to escape from Sabratha last week, returning to Rome this weekend.


They have claimed that, even though their captors beat them and gave them little to eat, they were not Isis operatives, but rather “criminals” interested in a ransom for the Italians.

Many observers believe that negotiations for such a ransom were ongoing but the circumstances of the deaths of Failla and Piano, presumably caught up in a shoot-out between rival militia, renders the picture all the more confusing.

Concern about Italy becoming militarily involved in Libya, too, may be a little late.   Daily Il Sole 24 Ore reported last week that 40 Italian secret service agents are already at work in Libya, while another 50 special forces are expected to join them.

Intriguingly, most of these operatives come directly under the control, not of parliament, but rather of Renzi.