ROME Two Italian civilians held hostage in Libya were probably killed this week in fighting in the western Libyan city of Sabratha, the Italian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.
Libyan security forces said they attacked Islamic State militants in Sabratha on Wednesday, and later released photographs of two Western men found dead after their raid.
Italy's Foreign Ministry said the men might be two of the four employees of the Italian construction company Bonatti who were kidnapped last July near a compound owned by the oil and gas group Eni.
It named the possible victims as Fausto Piano and Salvatore Failla but said formal verification was difficult because it did not have access to the bodies.
A spokesman for security forces in Sabratha said the two were probably shot before Wednesday's clashes. "According to our investigations the two Italians who were kidnapped in Libya last year were executed by Islamic State militants before the confrontation took place," Sabri Kshada said.
Local Libyan brigades have been fighting in Sabratha since last week, when militants briefly overran the city center and beheaded more than 10 brigade members.
That followed a U.S. air strike on the outskirts of Sabratha on Feb. 19 in which more than 40 people were killed. The Serbian government said two Serbian nationals who had been held hostage since November were among the dead.
Sabratha is one of several Libyan cities where militants loyal to Islamic State have established a presence, taking advantage of the political chaos that has plagued the North African country since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.
Italy's Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper said on Thursday that Italy had sent some 40 secret service agents to Libya "some weeks ago", and that an additional 50 special forces operatives were set to join them. A security source confirmed the story.
Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, has said it is ready to send a much larger contingent there to help train local forces as soon as a U.N.-backed unity government is formed.
Officials in Rome who did not want to be identified said these troops would not be involved in front-line action. Any direct military action would only be ordered to defend Italian interests, such as Eni installations, they said.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome and Ahmed Elumami in Libya; Editing by Steve Scherer and Mark Heinrich)