Libya: Italians fear Gaddafi revenge attack
Special relationship was so close Gaddafi even owns a piece of the company that makes the Lynx helicopter
For most of Europe, Gaddafi's angry threats to turn the 'entire Mediterranean into a battlefield' following the first rain of Nato bombs and missiles on Libya over the weekend are just the rantings of the country's "mad dog" dictator. But Italians know better.
On Sunday, concerned authorities heightened security at all sensitive locations in Sicily, including ports, airports, military installations and consulates. Officials also announced the possible closure of Trapani and Pantelliera airports to civilian air travel because of increased military air traffic.
Four major factors are behind the Italians' palpable sense of concern: 1. Geography (they're closest); 2. History (Libya, a former colony, has fired missiles at them before); 3. Strategy (Operation Odyssey Dawn is being organised from Naples); 4. Fear of a vendetta.
The latter is critical: Gaddafi views Italy as "a traitor" after it turned its back on its former colony despite the two countries' close economic ties, a friendship treaty signed in 2008 and his close personal friendship with Silvio Berlusconi.
In short, nowhere in Europe is this conflict felt more acutely.
Italy is the EU nation physically closest to Libya, and until recently, the former colony supplied Italy with nearly a third of its natural gas and oil.
Last August, Berlusconi rolled out the red carpet with great fanfare for Gaddafi's arrival in Rome. And let's not forget, Berlusconi's infamous 'bunga bunga' parties are said to be modelled on his Libyan friend's harems.
Today the bombing raids against Libya are being coordinated from Nato's Joint Command Centre in Naples, a massive build-up of airpower is underway at seven Italian bases, and British and American warships, aircraft carriers and submarines are manoeuvering off its coasts.
Late on Sunday, a small tugboat with eight Italians aboard was sequestered by Libyan military authorities in the port of Tripoli. The Italian government is carefully monitoring the situation of those aboard the Asso 22.
With their country being used as a staging ground and their countrymen already caught in the middle, vulnerable Italians are recalling the last time they were caught in Gaddafi's crosshairs.
In 1986, the Libyans fired two Soviet-made Scud missiles at the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in an attempt to hit an American base. It was in retaliation for the US airstrikes called by President Ronald Reagan on Tripoli and Benghazi following the bombing of a Berlin disco which Washington blamed on Libya.
The missiles fell short of their target and landed harmlessly in the sea, but the island's residents are, understandably, feeling a sense of déjà vu.
"We are caught between two fires," former Lampedusa mayor Toto'Martello told La Repubblica over the weekend. "On one side there's the emergency of the immigrants occupying the island, on the other side there's the more serious and dangerous worry of a Libyan attack against our island."
Silvio Berlusconi made a weekend appeal to assuage Italians' worries. "I would like to reassure the Italian people: our armed forces have carried out an in-depth assessment of Libya's military arsenal. It emerged that, at this stage, they have no weapons that could reach Italy."
This, it transpires, is based on the fine-line calculation - announced by Italian defence minister Ignazio La Russia - that Libya's missiles are limited to a 300-kilometre reach while Lampedusa is actually 335 kilometers from Tripoli. This is hardly of great comfort to the embattled residents of Lampedusa.
The greatest threat to Italy from Gaddafi remains his pledge that Europe will be "invaded" by an army of African immigrants fleeing north via Italy.
There are already 4,000 illegal immigrants crammed into a holding centre on Lampedusa designed for 800: the tiny island is bursting at its seams.
Before this crisis, a deal done with Berlusconi saw Gaddafi control this flux of immigration from north Africa to Italy. Following the Italian prime minister's "treachery", that deal is off.
Socially and economically, severing relations with Libya is a long-term risk for Italy, which has billions in lucrative business contracts with the Libyan government, and receives considerable investment in return.
Most notably, Gaddafi holds a two per cent stake in the Italian defence company Finmeccanica, which owns AgustaWestland, the company that builds the Lynx helicopters used by the British Army. Only two weeks ago, Finmeccanica was boasting about a new contract with the UK's Ministry of Defence to design and develop "an integrated training solution" which includes the building and equipping of a new training centre in Somerset for the Lynx Wildcat helicopter.
The Libyan central bank also owns 7.5 per cent of the Italian bank UniCredit, as well as stakes in Fiat and the Italian football team Juventus. On Sunday, Italy announced it had frozen between €6bn and €77bn in Libyan/Gaddafi assets. ·
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