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Italy cautious on using bomber jets in Afghanistan

ROME (Reuters) - Italy will equip its combat jets in Afghanistan with bombs only if there is wide support in Italy, the defense minister said on Wednesday after four Italian soldiers were killed at the weekend.

Italy, one of the biggest European contributors to the NATO-led ISAF force in Afghanistan, does not equip its aircraft with bombs because its troops are considered to be operating on a humanitarian mission.

But parliament is due to consider whether bombs should be authorized to protect troops after the deaths of the four soldiers in an insurgent ambush on Saturday brought the Italian military death toll to 34 since 2004.

Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said the military had argued in favor of authorizing the use of bombs because the troops were operating mainly in desert regions where there would be only a low risk of causing civilian casualties.

But in a speech in parliament, he said there would need to be wide general support in Italy for arming the planes before the government would agree.

“The military reasons are convincing but the decision I take will not be on technical grounds alone,” he said.

He said he did not wish to turn Italians against support for the mission.

“I am not prepared to put this common spirit of support for our soldiers at risk ... even for a decision which I consider justified, legitimate and important,” he said.

Italian fighter jets in Afghanistan, usually used for reconnaissance purposes, are only allowed to use gunfire against specific targets.

The minister has said the planes are deliberately unequipped with bombs at present to avoid the risk of civilian casualties but that made Italy the only international force in Afghanistan without bombs on its fighter jets.

Italy has more than 3,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, mainly deployed in the less violent western part of the country.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government has supported the mission but rising casualties have prompted critics to argue that the mission has moved away from its original purpose of peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.

A poll last year showed that a majority of Italians wanted their soldiers out of Afghanistan and a rising number believed the mission had become a “war operation.”

La Russa reiterated that Italy could hand over operational responsibility for the western region it is covering to Afghan forces by the end of next year, allowing it to begin pulling its troops out of the country.

Reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Alison Williams