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Renzi says won't send troops to Libya for now; freed Italian hostages fly home

MILAN/ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Matteo Renzi denied on Sunday suggestions by the U.S. ambassador in Rome that Italy could send up to 5,000 troops to Libya, saying conditions were not in place for military intervention in the former Italian colony.

Renzi was speaking on a television talk show on the day two Italian hostages freed in Libya were flown back home. Two other captives held at the same time were allegedly killed by Islamic State militants.

“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.

He was responding to the U.S. ambassador to Italy, John Phillips, who told the Corriere della Sera newspaper on Friday that Rome could send up to 5,000 troops.

“We need to make Tripoli safe and ensure that ISIS is no longer free to strike,” Phillips said.

Rome is working with other Western powers and the United Nations to try to convince two rival Libyan governments to create a single, unity coalition and focus on the fight against Islamic State.

In the meantime, the United States has launched air strikes on Islamic State outposts in the country and the French have conducted surveillance flights. U.S., French and British special forces are also in the country, officials and media have said.

Tripoli-based Libyan Foreign Minister Ali Abu Zakouk (R) stands with Gino Pollicardo (L) and Filippo Calcagno (2nd R), two Italian civilians held hostage near the western Libyan city of Sabratha since last July, after they were freed, at Mitiga International Airport in Tripoli, Libya March 6, 2016. REUTERS/Hani Amara

Italian officials have said Italy has sent some 40 secret service agents to Libya in recent weeks, with an additional 50 special forces operatives set to join them.

Rome, however, is resisting pressure to allow aircraft and armed drones based on its territory to stage attacks on Islamic State militants in Libya. It is also trying to persuade its allies to limit action until a single government is in place and requests international help.

“If there is a need to intervene, Italy will not back down. But this is not the situation today. The idea of sending 5,000 men is not on the table,” Renzi said.

The two freed hostages and their slain companions were employees of Italian construction company Bonatti. They were all seized last July near the western Libyan city of Sabratha.

Gino Pollicardo and Filippo Calcagno arrived at Rome’s military airport of Ciampino on Sunday. According to a spokesman for Libyan security forces in Sabratha, Sabri Kshada, the pair were released during a raid early on Friday.

Fellow captives Salvatore Failla and Fausto Piano were shot dead by Islamic State militants shortly before Libyan forces attacked on Wednesday, Kshada has said.

However, Italian media said the two freed hostages had told Italian magistrates during a six-hour debriefing in Rome that they had been held by a criminal gang that was not directly linked to ISIS.

Quoting unnamed sources, the reports said the pair told magistrates they were beaten and left without food for days by their captors, and had managed to escape unaided on Friday. The two men have not spoken in public about the circumstances of their release.

Sabratha is one of several Libyan cities in which militants loyal to Islamic State have established a presence, taking advantage of the chaos since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in an uprising five years ago.

Before departing for Italy from Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, Pollicardo and Calcagno briefly appeared beside Ali Abu Zakouk, the foreign minister of the self-declared government in Tripoli.

“We need support and cooperation from the Italians to tackle the criminal organization of Islamic State in Libya,” Zakouk said.

Reporting by Silvia Aloisi, additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli; Editing by Andrew Bolton, Larry King