ROME (AP) — Italy has agreed to allow American drones to be armed and take off from an air base in Sicily but only to defend U.S. forces while they target Islamic State group extremists in Libya, Italian officials said Monday.
An Italian defense ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity as the government hasn't announced the deal, said Rome and Washington reached agreement last month. Permission will have to be asked of the Italian government every time, and decided on a case-by-case basis, for the drones to take off from Sigonella air base to protect military personnel deemed at risk during anti-IS operations in Libya and elsewhere in northern Africa. Permission won't be granted for offensive missions under the arrangement.
So far the U.S. drones based in Sigonella have neither been armed nor requested to be used, the official said.
Washington is counting on Italy to play a major role in an allied coalition, expected to also include Britain and France, against IS extremists gaining ground in Libya, across the Mediterranean from Italy.
Premier Matteo Renzi has promised Italy would provide support for such a coalition's mission. But he and other Italian government officials have stressed Italy's military won't participate in airstrikes themselves.
Last week, U.S. fighter bombers struck an Islamic State training camp in western Libya, near the Tunisian border in a raid targeting an IS operative considered responsible for deadly attacks in Tunisia last year.
The Italian government has insisted any coalition mission against IS in Libya receive a mandate from a national unity government there. But there is no such government despite years of diplomatic prodding by Italy and others. Squabbling political factions and rival militia and tribal loyalties have so far thwarted that goal.
Libya slid into chaos and violence after the ouster and death of longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
With rival governments, based in Tobruk and Tripoli, so far failing to bridge differences, Renzi on Monday appeared to indicate a crack in Italy's insistence that a unity government give the mandate for the military operation. "We'll see" what happens if a unity government isn't formed, Renzi told reporters.