Italy’s coastguard announced Friday that it would allow its 11,000 members to carry weapons, following threats from Islamic militants in Libya, and recent confrontation with traffickers.
Up till now, the Italian coastguard has operated on a different status from the ordinary military or even that of police officers, who have the right to carry firearms. Now the coastguard will be on a similar footing.
This represents a noteworthy acceleration of events and a heightened understanding of the gravity of the situation. Just two weeks ago, the general commander of the coast guard himself, Admiral Felicio Angrisano, had said that there were no plans to arm his officers, insisting that “we have a purpose when we go into the sea: save lives, not to fight.”
The change in policy received impetus from recent threats from the Islamic State in Libya naming Rome as a target, and the February 15 incident where four smugglers armed with Kalashnikovs assaulted an Italian coast guard boat engaged in a rescue operation. The smugglers forced the officers to hand over the empty vessel, which they appropriated for future use.
This week the coast guard’s general command sent a letter to Italy’s transport minister saying that engaging in policing activities while having to rely on other forces for protection was “humiliating” and “seriously undermining staff morale.”
Appeals from the coast guard were accompanied by similar requests from those who work the sea and require protection.
Italy’s Federation of ship-owners has urged the government to order the navy to carry out maritime patrols in order to defend boats in the international waters between Italy and North Africa.
In a letter to Prime Minister Renzi and the Minister for Agriculture, the president of the consortium of the fishermen of Lampedusa and Linosa, Totò Martello, called for a declaration of a state of emergency.
According to Martello, the Mediterranean “is becoming the powder keg of the world.”
“We live in fear of being accosted by terrorists and smugglers, you cannot live with the nightmare of not returning home,” he said.
Italy’s fears revolve around a growing immigration problem originating in Africa. In ever greater numbers migrant workers and refugees are attempting to cross from Africa into the south of Italy. With the presence of the Islamic State in Libya, the danger has increased exponentially, since among the numerous refugees ISIS could easily insert jihadists.
The ongoing threat from ISIS has also thrown the Italian government budget out of whack, since all the increased military activity comes at a price. This past week Parliament approved an additional 868 million euro military package that only extends for the next nine months, after which hundreds of millions more will be necessary.
According to reports, the Italian campaign against ISIS in Iraq alone will cost half a million euros per day. A full 135 million are destined for the anti-ISIS operation that Italian generals have christened First Parthica, a name that evokes the Roman legion of Syrian-based conscripts in Iraq who fought against the Parthian Empire in the second and third centuries AD. Italian participation in the US-led military coalition has a monthly cost of about 15 million euro, needed to pay the salaries of 500 soldiers, special forces, fighter-bombers, helicopters and drones.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome