Rome: Italy`s coastguard on Friday called on the government to change its status so that its 11,000 seamen can carry weapons, amid mounting concern over the possibility of attacks by people traffickers or terrorists.
The demand is a long-standing one but has been renewed following a recent incident in which traffickers armed with Kalashnikovs threatened coastguards engaged in an operation to rescue thousands of migrants in danger of drowning close to Libya.
It also follows signs that the Islamic State group has established a base in conflict-torn Libya, from where propagandists claiming to speak for the jihadists have threatened to mount attacks on southern Europe and merchant shipping in the Mediterranean.
The coastguard wants to be given the same status as Italy`s police forces, which would automatically give it the right to carry weapons.
A resolution adopted by the coastguard`s General Command called for urgent talks on the issue with Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi, whose department oversees the coastguard.
It said it was self-evident that the coastguard was now engaged in mainly policing activities and that having to rely on other forces for protection was "humiliating" and "seriously undermining staff morale."
The resolution also highlighted the ordeal of coastguards who were threatened by armed people smugglers during a rescue operation on February 15.
As the coastguards evacuated a migrant boat, four smugglers arrived on a speedboat and forced them to hand over the empty vessel, which they then took off with, presumably for re-use in future crossings.
Italy`s Federation of shipowners called on the government to introduce naval patrols to protect fishing boats operating in international waters between Italy and North Africa.
"Our fisherman are afraid of being attacked by terrorists, they cannot be allowed to live with the nightmare of not coming home," the federation`s chairman, Carmelo Micalizzi, said in a statement.
"They need to feel protected and more at ease in a Mediterranean that becomes more dangerous every day."
Dwindling stocks closer to Italy have forced fishermen in Sicily to venture further afield and many now depend for their livelihood on catching tuna, swordfish and prawns in waters close to Africa.