Italy, reacting to Libyan threats, has taken over command of the U.S. Coast Guard navigation station on the southernmost Italian island of Lampedusa that was the target of a Libyan missile attack April 15.
The Italian takeover of the communication station on the small rocky island, which is closer to North Africa than to Sicily, took place with little fanfare almost two weeks ago, according to Italian Defense Ministry sources. They confirmed the transfer this weekend after the island's mayor, Giovanni Fragapane, disclosed the change.
The two dozen U.S. Coast Guards currently on Lampedusa will remain at the base and continue running the Loran (Long Range Aid to Navigation) station, sources said. But instead of operating under autonomous U.S. Coast Guard command, they will now be under Col. Alessio Pucciano, of the Italian Air Force's 135th Air Radar Squadron.
Italian government officials said the transfer of command was the result of "technical" changes in Italian Air Force radar and communications jurisdiction that was extended south to Lampedusa after the failed Libyan attack.
U.S. and Italian sources said privately, however, that the change had taken place in response to pressures from the island's 4,700 residents in the light of repeated Libyan threats to bomb and "destroy" the island so long as it remained what Libya said was a base for U.S. "spying activities."
In Washington, U.S. officials said an Italian military presence on Lampedusa was provided for in the joint U.S.-Italian agreement, Washington Post staff writer George C. Wilson reported. They said there was no dispute over the Italian military going to Lampedusa in line with contingency plans.
The U.S. officials added that a small group of U.S. Marines had gone to Lampedusa shortly before the Libyan attack. If there had been a major Libyan attack, sources said, the Italian military would have sent reinforcements to protect the navigation site.
Italy's military, U.S. sources said, wanted to reassert its rights and responsibilities on Lampedusa rather than continue to leave the defense of the island to the U.S. Marines.
In the wake of the U.S. bombing of targets in the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi on April 15, the Libyans fired two Soviet-made Scud-B surface-to-surface missiles at the Coast Guard station high on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. Libyan officials charged that it had helped direct the U.S. planes to their targets in Libya.
The two missiles landed short of the island but their explosions in the sea several miles offshore were loud enough to scare many of the island's fisherman and tourist entrepreneurs.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosions, many residents sought refuge in caves unused since the British bombed the island in World War II. Even after the initial scare waned, the island's population felt under a continuing menace as Tripoli issued more threats, the last only a week ago, that it would "destroy" the island because it harbored U.S. "spy bases" that aided the attacks on Libya.
The island's local government voted unanimously April 16 to request the Italian government to take control of the Coast Guard station.
Italy's official response to the attack -- the first on its territory by a foreign military force since World War II -- was to reinforce the island's almost nonexistent defenses with about 100 paratroops and carabinieri and, for a while at least, naval and air patrols from Sicily.
The government also cracked down on Libyans living in Italy while warning that it would respond with force, if necessary, to any further armed threats from Libya.
Under the agreement governing the 1972 establishment of the Loran station on Lampedusa -- after the United States was forced to shift a similar facility from the nearby island of Malta -- the United States was to run the base until 1988, when the agreement was to be renegotiated.