Nato alliance fears as Italy cuts back on Libya role

ITALY will pull back its role in the Libya campaign, the country's defence minister said yesterday, bringing an aircraft carrier and hundreds of sailors home, in new evidence that a Nato alliance is starting to fray after nearly 100 days of bombing.

The drawdown will trim the cost of Italy's mission by a third after it spent €142 million in three months, defence minister Ignazio La Russa said. The aircraft carrier Garibaldi will be replaced by a smaller ship, freeing up nearly 1,000 military personnel, though its three aircraft will be replaced by jets at Italian bases that would still fly missions.

The cutbacks were part of an overall trimming of Italy's military missions abroad, but it was read as the strongest signal yet of a growing weariness with the war among some Nato allies. The US House of Representatives recently voted overwhelmingly against giving President Barack Obama the authority to continue the military mission, though it stopped short of cutting off funds.

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Premier Silvio Berlusconi is under pressure to withdraw from the Libya campaign from his key ally the Northern League, which has opposed the war because of the cost and fears of an influx of migrants.

Nato's campaign was originally intended to deliver a sharp, devastating military blow that would allow the opposition to quickly oust Muammar al-Gadhafi's regime. France, which led the first airstrikes in March, said yesterday it is determined to continue and will urge its parliament to extend the operation.

A Nato spokesman yesterday denied a Libyan government charge it is using its airstrikes to assist rebel advances, saying it is sticking to its mandate to protect civilians.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken, an alliance spokesman in Naples, Italy, said Nato is "not involved in the ground battles," although he acknowledged the alliance is tracking the fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Col Gaddafi.

Libya's deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim had accused Nato of intensifying its bombing campaign and backing foreign mercenaries to lay the groundwork for an advance by rebels. Mr Kaim said increased bombings in recent days represent the "final phase" of Nato's air campaign, but the push would fail.