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Italy approves military mission in Niger, more troops to North Africa

FILE PHOTO - Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni stands during a southern European Union nations meeting in Rome, Italy January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s parliament approved on Wednesday an increased military presence in Libya and the deployment of up to 470 troops in Niger to combat migration and the trafficking of people towards Europe, many of whom wash up on Italian shores.

At the end of last year, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said he would redeploy some troops to North Africa from Iraq and Afghanistan, requiring parliament to reopen to give its consent, despite having already closed ahead of the March 4 national election.

Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party, which is in opposition, backed the resolution, while the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement refused its support, saying the measure would prevent whoever wins the election from setting their own foreign policy priorities.

In the resolution on foreign missions for this year, Italy plans to spend 1.5 billion euros (£1.33 billion) on 31 missions in 21 countries. Only a portion of the funding was approved in the budget and additional money will have to be set aside by the end of September.

The focus on Africa comes as Italy is seeking to stop migrants from reaching its shores. The mostly African immigrants first cross the Sahel states to reach Libya, where they set off in boats for Italy. More than 600,000 have come in the past four years.

The Niger mission was announced on Dec. 28 as Italy joined France and the United States, which already have troops there, in efforts to help President Mahamadou Issoufou better control Niger’s territory and borders.

Gentiloni said the mission would “guarantee stability in the area and fight illegal trafficking of migrants”.

Some 400 soldiers are expected to work in Libya, up from about 370, and, as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Italy will send 60 troops to Tunisia to improve border control and fight terrorism.

The number of troops in Afghanistan will be halved to about 750, while about 200 soldiers will be withdrawn from Iraq.

Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Robin Pomeroy