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ROME — Italy has put four jets at NATO's disposal for airstrikes against military targets in Libya as part of a stepped-up role in the military campaign against Moammar Gadhafi's forces, the defence minister said Wednesday.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government announced this week that Rome had agreed to a NATO request to bolster its activity in Libya, allowing its aircraft to begin airstrikes on targets beyond Moammar Gadhafi's air defence systems.
Italy had previously ruled out taking part in airstrikes against Libyan targets. Citing its 40-year colonial rule over the country, Italy only allowed offensive air missions aimed at destroying Libyan radar systems. Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa said that Italy had been launched any such attacks, however.
Italy has also allowed NATO use of its bases and aircraft for aerial reconnaissance, and Italian navy ships have been involved in refuelling and other operations to assist other NATO aircraft.
La Russa said that — out of a total of 12 Italian aircraft involved in the NATO operation — four Tornado jets can now be used "for targeted action against specific and selected" military targets, he told lawmakers. Another four aircraft could also be authorized for such missions if needed.
Italy says that the new missions are within the mandate of the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized the use of force — short of inserting an occupying ground force — to protect civilians from attacks by the Libyan government.
"This new phase kicks off with this parliamentary briefing," La Russa said. The aircraft and crews "will be made available to NATO for employment as soon as targets are assigned."
The new stepped-up role was prompted by Gadhafi's continued attacks on civilians in the western city of Misrata, Italian officials have said. Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of the opposition National Transitional Council, visited Italy last week to ask for more help.
Rebels have complained that NATO-led firepower hasn't been sufficient to help them advance against Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
La Russa also said that Italy hopes to have a greater say in strategic decisions thanks to its new military role. Rome is set to host a meeting of key countries involved in the Libya campaign on May 5 to discuss increasing diplomatic and economic pressure on Gadhafi as well as providing additional support to the opposition.
The defence minister has been insisting that no parliamentary vote of approval is needed for Italy's stepped up role in NATO airstrikes, since Italy had already committed itself to a role in the overall NATO campaign against Gadhafi's forces.
Berlusconi's forces have a majority in parliament, but the main ally in his coalition, Umberto Bossi of the Northern League, has chafed at the airstrike role for Italy.
Bossi's party stridently espouses an anti-immigrant line, and his party fears an escalation of bombing could prompt even more migrants to flee Libya and land on Italian shores. Bossi said that Italy has become a "French colony," referring to Paris' lobbying of its allies for an escalation of NATO operations in Libya.
But neither Bossi nor top League officials have raised the possibility of officially breaking with the Berlusconi's coalition over the NATO role, apparently reluctant to risk being seen by voters as a spoiler.