Italy defence minister sends signal on NATO Libya unity


Any Italian debate about the possibility of ending active involvement in the NATO campaign in Libya could encourage its allies to push for a non-military resolution, Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa said in a newspaper interview published on Saturday.

“I say that the government and parliament thinking about a date for the closure of our active participation could serve as a stimulus to our British, French and American allies to find a diplomatic way out of the crisis,” he told the daily Corriere della Sera.

La Russa said Italy could “consider the hypothesis of setting a term to our active participation in the mission” although “the willingness to make our bases available would remain.”

He said any decision on a change of policy would not come before the end of the current 90-day period authorised for the mission at the start of June.
“In that period, as a country which is involved in the actions of which thus has a voice which counts, we should work as best we can to favour diplomatic and political solutions which could lead to the period after Gaddafi,” he said.

La Russa’s comments appeared in part aimed at conciliating Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition allies in the pro-devolution, anti-immigrant Northern League party, who have been against the mission from the start.

But they also underline growing unease in the western alliance at the lack of progress in toppling Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who has vowed to resist to the end.

Italy, previously Gaddafi’s closest friend in Europe, has recognised the rebel Transitional National Council and on Friday signed an accord aimed at limiting a flood of illegal immigration from Libya with council leader Mahmoud Jebril.

It has made air bases available to the NATO-led alliance, provided logistical support and assigned eight combat aircraft to the operation but the struggling centre-right government is divided over its involvement.

Coalition divisions have resurfaced after two crushing defeats in local elections and referendums in recent weeks and the Northern League is expected to voice their concerns at a party rally on Sunday.

The League’s support is vital to the survival of the government and the rally will be closely watched for signs that it may be considering pulling out of the coalition, a move which would trigger early elections.

La Russa said the government would be looking at cutting the cost of all of Italy’s foreign military missions, which include more than 3,800 troops in the NATO force in Afghanistan.
“I think it is possible to make a series of choices which would allow us not to fail the international commitments of a country like Italy but which at the same time, would allow us to make significant savings in the cost of the missions,” he said.