ROME (Reuters) - Western powers are prepared to fight Islamic State in Libya even if the North African country fails to agree on a unified government soon, Italy's defense minister said on Thursday.
Libya's internationally recognized parliament rejected the United Nations proposal for a unified government earlier this week. Meanwhile, the militant group IS is stepping up attacks throughout the country.
"We cannot imagine the situation in Libya remaining in a stall as spring comes and goes," Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said in an interview with the newspaper Corriere della Sera. Her spokesman confirmed the comments.
Since 2014, Libya has had two competing parliaments and governments, one set based in Tripoli and a second, internationally recognized one in the east. Both are backed by loose alliances of armed groups and former rebels who helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
At a Paris meeting last week of defense ministers from countries in the anti-IS coalition, Pinotti said, there was "total agreement" that a Libya unity government should ask for help to fight militants, to avoid fuelling "jihadist propaganda" of yet another "Western invasion".
But she went on to say that Islamic State was strengthening in the current political vacuum, prompting Italy and its allies to prepare for an "emergency", adding that the United States recently has expressed "a greater concern" over IS militants in Libya.
"In the past month, we have worked more diligently with Americans, British and French," Pinotti said. "I wouldn't call it an acceleration, and it's certainly not unilateral. We are all agreed that we must avoid uncoordinated action," she said.
On Wednesday, the U.S. said it had already sent "a small number of military personnel" into Libya to try to "to engage in conversations with local forces to get a clearer picture of exactly what's happening there," Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.
"We're looking at military options," Cook said, according to a transcript of his press conference on the Department of Defense website.
IS militants have taken advantage of Libya's chaos to establish themselves in the city of Sirte, and they have carried out several attacks on oil installations this month. At least 47 were killed by an IS suicide bombing against a Libyan police training center earlier this month.
Italy has said it wants a leadership role in stabilizing Libya, its former colonial possession, which is located less than 200 miles (320 km) from the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Libya-based people smugglers have sent some 300,000 migrants in boats bound for Italy over the past two years.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer, editing by Larry King)