February 18, 2015 / 11:04 AM / in 3 years

Italy warns of Libya threat as pressure for action grows

ROME (Reuters) - Italy called on Wednesday for urgent international action to halt Libya’s slide into chaos and said it was ready to help monitor a ceasefire and train local armed forces.

The U.N. Security Council is due to meet later on Wednesday to discuss Libya, where two rival governments, each backed by former rebels who toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, are battling for power.

The growing danger became apparent on Sunday when Islamic State released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told parliament that possible alliances between local militias and IS militants, inspired by their counterparts in Syria and Iraq, risked destabilizing neighboring countries.

“The deterioration of the situation on the ground forces the international community to move more quickly before it’s too late,” he said in a special address on the crisis.

“There’s a clear risk of alliances between Daesh and local groups,” he said, using a common Arabic name for Islamic State. “The situation must be monitored with the maximum attention.”

Italy, whose southern islands are only around 300 kilometers (186 miles) from the Libyan coast, has watched in alarm as the country has unraveled since Western forces helped topple Gaddafi.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants have arrived in southern Italy in unsafe boats, their departure from Libya facilitated by people smugglers operating freely in conditions of near-anarchy. Last week, more than 300 were reported to have died attempting the crossing.

As well as fuelling anti-immigrant sentiment in Italy, which is suffering a deep economic slump of its own, the crisis has also heightened security fears, particularly after this week’s beheadings of the Egyptian Christians and Islamic State messages threatening Rome, home of the Pope.

However, Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti told parliament no evidence had been found of any increased threat to Italy in particular. “We’re at risk, as all countries that are fighting terrorism are,” she said.

Gentiloni spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday when Italy joined the United States, France, Germany, Spain and Britain in calling for a national unity government in Libya. He said Wednesday’s Security Council meeting had to produce concrete signs the scale of the crisis was recognized. Italy was ready to help monitor a ceasefire and train a regular army within the framework of a U.N. mission, he said. But Pinotti warned that any military action needed agreement within Libya.

“It’s not realistic to talk about a peace-enforcing mission in Libya because there would first have to be an accord between the factions, but it could be a peacekeeping mission,” she said.

Gentiloni said the surge in migrant arrivals, up nearly 60 percent in the first six weeks of the year to more than 5,300, was clearly connected with the security situation in Libya.

Italy ended its “Mare Nostrum” search-and-rescue mission in October, but the EU-backed Triton mission that replaced it has been criticized as inadequate.

Additional reporting by Steve Scherer and Roberto Landucci; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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