International Italy-led force ready to enter Libya

 Tunisian special forces take position during clashes with militants in Ben Guerdane. Photograph: Fathi Nasri/AFP/Getty Images
Tunisian special forces take position during clashes with militants in Ben Guerdane. Photograph: Fathi Nasri/AFP/Getty Images

A 5,000-strong, Italian-led international force is ready to deploy in Libya as concern grows over the threat from extremist groups operating in the country, with dozens killed in clashes in neighbouring Tunisia on Monday.

Tunisia’s interior and defence ministries said at least 53 people – 35 attackers, seven civilians and 11 members of the security forces – were killed in fighting that followed a raid from across the Libyan border.

The group responsible for the attack was not identified, though the US and European governments are increasingly worried about the spread of Islamic State in Libya.

The Italian government is working on a plan to send a force, including British troops, to help mentor and train a new Libyan army if the parliament there formally votes to support a unity government. After that vote, the government would then have to invite the Italian-led force to deploy.

Deployment would take at least a month and training would be carried out near the capital.

Monday’s attack in the Tunisian town of Ben Guerdane, close to the Libyan border, began at dawn and targeted a police station and military sites. Residents were told to remain inside as soldiers and helicopters were sent to the area to help hunt for the attackers.

Associated Press reported a hospital official, Abdelkrim Sakroud, saying on state radio a 12-year-old girl was among the civilians who were killed.

Speaking from the capital Tunis, Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi said extremists now posed a security threat to his entire country.

“This is an unprecedented attack, planned and organised,” he said. “Its goal was probably to take control of this area and to announce a new emirate. The majority of Tunisians are now in a state of war against barbarism.”

In a separate incident last week, five jihadis and a civilian were reportedly killed outside the town.

The increased activity along the Libya-Tunisia border follows a US airstrike on an Isis training camp in Libya last month.

There has been speculation since then that fighters have crossed into Tunisia to seek sanctuary. Tunisian members of Isis have also been reported crossing the border to fight in their home country after being trained in Libya.

Chaos has engulfed Libya since the Nato-backed ousting of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Rival administrations which have vied for power since mid-2014 are being urged to sign up to a UN-brokered national unity government to help restore stability and tackle a growing jihadi presence. Isis and other extremist organisations have exploited the power vacuum to seize significant territory along the coast around the central city of Sirte, as well as around Sabratha, between Tripoli and the Tunisian border.

The Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, said on Sunday that the conditions were not yet in place for a military intervention. “As long as I am prime minister, Italy will not go to Libya for an invasion with 5,000 men,” Renzi told Canale 5 television.

The Italian government has repeatedly stressed that such troops would be used only in an advisory and training role and not in direct combat with Isis.

His comments followed those of the US ambassador to Italy, John Phillips, who was quoted in Corriere della Sera on Friday as saying that Italy could send up to 5,000 troops. “We need to make Tripoli safe and ensure that Isis is no longer free to strike,” he said.

A host of countries have volunteered to contribute to the Italian-led force, including the UK, the US, Germany, France and Arab countries. The US is already engaged in airstrikes against Isis targets in Libya. French and other special forces are also on the ground.

Asked about the presence of British special forces, the Ministry of Defence said it never comments on their movements. The MoD announced last week it was sending 50 troops to Tunisia to help train its forces.

In a phone call on Monday, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, told his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, that the fight against terrorism had to involve Libya and Yemen, not just Syria.

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