ROME (AP) — The death of two Italian hostages in Libya this week has added urgency to calls for Italy to intervene militarily in its former colony, with names being floated of an Italian to head an international coalition to fight the Islamic State group and plans for some 5,000 Italian troops to be deployed.
But criticism of any military intervention is also growing, with opposition calls for the government of Premier Matteo Renzi to resist pressure from U.S. and European allies and at the very least to brief Parliament about its plans.
The U.S. ambassador to Italy, John Phillips, said in an interview published Friday that Italy had committed to providing upwards of 5,000 troops for an international force to help stabilize Libya and prevent the Islamic State from posing a greater threat.
A U.S. embassy spokesman stressed that Phillips was merely repeating what Italian defense and foreign ministers had said previously. But coupled with a steady stream of alarmist headlines in Italy about imminent military action in Libya, the interview seemed to point to plans that are increasingly taking shape.
Italy, just a few hundred kilometers (miles) from the Libyan coast, has long said it would be on the front line of any international force to stabilize the country and help stem the waves of migrants who have used Libya as a jumping off point to reach Europe.
But Italy has insisted it would only do so if formally requested by a Libyan national unity government. That government is still awaiting endorsement from Libya's fractured factions, delaying any firm decisions on a possible request to the U.N. for international intervention.
Already, though, Italy has agreed to allow American drones to be armed and take off from an air base in Sigonella, Sicily to defend U.S. forces while they target Islamic State extremists. Last month, American F-15E fighter-bombers struck an Islamic State training camp in rural Libya near the Tunisian border.
And Libyan military officials say French special forces have been helping Libyan troops fight Islamic State militants in the eastern city of Benghazi for two months.
In recent days, Italian newspapers have been rife with reports that plans were ramping up following a decree signed by the Italian premier Feb. 10 designating the Italian overseas secret service agency Aise as the lead special forces on the ground. Corriere della Sera this week tipped Gen. Paolo Serra, security adviser to U.N. Libya envoy Martin Kobler, as the lead candidate to head any international coalition.
"Italy has made a commitment to provide in the range of 5,000 troops," Phillips told Corriere. He said the aim was to make Libya secure so the Islamic State cannot strike.
But at the same time, enormous questions remain about the overall objective of any foreign intervention and what its rules of engagement would be.
Internal opposition, meanwhile, has been growing in recent days in Italy even after confirmation that two Italian construction workers taken hostage last year were killed in a clash between Islamic State fighters and local militias fighting them. Two other Italian hostages were freed on Friday.
The populist 5-Star Movement has demanded Renzi's government refer to parliament about its plans.
"The death of the Italian hostages in Libya was the fruit of the chaos generated by bombs," said the 5-Star's Luigi Di Maio, vice president of the lower chamber of deputies. "And our response will be more bombs for more chaos?"
Libya fell into chaos following the 2011 toppling and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi and since 2014, its divisions have only increased. It split into two governments and parliaments — the internationally recognized one in the country's east, and an Islamist-backed one in Tripoli.
A new U.N.-brokered unity government is awaiting endorsement by the eastern parliament but the parliament failed to meet last month as scheduled. It is now scheduled to meet on Monday.