ROME (Reuters) - Italy has agreed to let drones take off from its soil to defend U.S.-led forces against Islamic State in North Africa, an Italian defense ministry official said on Monday.
The agreement covers only defensive missions and not offensive action, such as the attack on a suspected militant training camp in Sabratha, Libya, that killed dozens last week.
Italy will decide whether to authorize drone departures from the Sigonella air base in Sicily case by case, and only if each mission's aim is to protect personnel on the ground. No request has been made yet to use the drones and they have not been armed, said the official, who asked not to be named.
U.S. officials have been trying to persuade Italy to let them conduct such operations from the Sigonella air base for more than a year, the Wall Street Journal reported. (http://on.wsj.com/1oY6AYO)
Islamic State is exploiting the chaos in Libya, where two rival governments have been contending for power since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, to establish bases and conduct raids both in Libya and in neighboring Tunisia.
The U.S. attack last week on one such base, in Sabratha, near the Tunisian border, targeted Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian militant linked to two raids in Tunisia that killed dozens, mostly tourists. The aircraft that carried out that attack took off from a base in Britain.
Neither Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's office nor U.S. defense officials immediately responded to requests for comment.
Italy has repeatedly said it would not take part in military strikes in Libya without the express request of a recognized government.
U.S. officials are pushing for drones destined for offensive operations like the Sabratha strike to take off from Sicily, but Italian officials have balked at that step, fearing domestic opposition, the Wall Street Journal reported.
(Reporting by Isla Binnie, additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington, editing by Larry King)