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ROME — As fighters from the Islamic State group build beachheads in lawless Libya, Italy is sending a naval fleet to monitor the Libyan coast and protect Italian shipping and oil rigs from jihadi attacks.

The mission, dubbed Mare Sicuro, or Safe Seas, will likely involve a landing helicopter dock vessel, two FREMM-class frigates, a patrol vessel and Predator UAVs, a defense source said.

A contingent of marines will join the mission, and use high-speed craft to intercept and board suspicious shipping, he added.

Speaking in parliament on March 19, Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said the assets would also be used for the "surveillance of jihadi formations." The source said that could involve monitoring ISIS communications in Libya and radar monitoring of shipping.

Italian Predators will fly surveillance missions from Sigonella air base in Sicily where US Global Hawks already operate. Italian Predators previously flew missions over Libya from Sigonella during the NATO air campaign in 2011, which led to the ousting of longtime dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

Since then, Libya has descended into chaos, with two rival governments claiming power — moderate Islamists in Tripoli and an internationally recognized government in Tobruk. Between them, ISIS fighters have set up in Derna and Sirte.

Fears that ISIS fighters would try to attack Italian ships or rigs, or even try to reach Italy on migrant vessels that sail from Libya, grew in Italy following a March 18 terrorist attack in Libya's north African neighbor, Tunisia.

Two gunmen burst into a museum in the capital Tunis and killed 20 foreign tourists before being shot dead by police. Although Tunisia emerged from the 2011 Arab Spring with a stable, democratic government, experts have said an attack was to be expected after more than 3,000 young Tunisians headed to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS.

After the attack, ISIS claimed responsibility, although the Tunisian government blamed a local group with ties to al-Qaida. But it was also revealed that the gunmen had trained in Libya, making it the first recent terror attack on Western targets launched from Libya.

Although Pinotti said there was still no proof that ISIS fighters would sail to Italy from Libya, she added that the Tunisia attack helped prompt the establishment of Mare Sicuro.

Additionally, she told parliament that Italy would supply Tunisian security forces with night vision goggles, on loan from the Italian Army, to help them control the Libyan border

Not all were convinced Mare Sicuro made sense.

"Without an international mandate. we won't be able to stop arms shipments at sea. And in any case, the militias are already very well armed," said one Italy-based analyst who declined to be named.

"Secondly, we cannot stop the oil tankers leaving Libya, which are financing militias. And if our ships get mixed up with saving migrants whose boats sink at sea, it will interrupt their military mission," he said.

"And what are the rules of engagement?" he added.

"The mission seems a bit paranoid," said Habib Sayah, a Tunisian political analyst. "Individual members of ISIS have spoken about attacks on Italy and we cannot rule it out, but there are no serious indications that there is a plan underway," he added.

On the other hand, an investigation by magistrates in Sicily has reportedly established links between Libyan militias and the people smugglers who make millions loading African migrants in rickety vessels that often sink.

In February, the Italian coast guard, picking up migrants at sea, was confronted by armed traffickers who arrived on a separate boat and ordered the Italians to hand over the migrant vessel once it was unloaded.

Additionally, Italy has a strategic reason to patrol international waters off the Libyan coast. State-controlled energy firm ENI manages oil and gas rigs just offshore and helped lay a gas pipeline that enters the Mediterranean west of Tripoli and emerges in Sicily, bringing important gas supplies to Italy.

The chances of a national government being formed in Libya look as faint as ever, despite a UN representative working hard this month to kickstart negotiations between the Tripoli and Tobruk factions.

"The distance between the diplomatic situation and the real situation on the ground is getting bigger," said Gabriele Iacovino, an analyst coordinator at the International Study Center in Rome.

Iacovino said a Libyan military leader, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who ostensibly commands forces for the Tobruk government, was impeding talks.

A former Gadhafi soldier who later tried to oust him, Haftar spent years in the US before returning to Libya as Gadhafi fell.

"Tobruk is finding it harder to control Haftar," said Iacovino. "As they talk to the UN, he is bombing Tripoli airport. But he has Egyptian backing and Egypt has no intention of negotiating with the Islamists in Tripoli, which makes Haftar stronger."

Email: tkington@defensenews.com

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