ROME (Reuters) -- Italy will send around 1,000 additional soldiers to Afghanistan as part of U.S. President Barack Obama's planned troop increase, Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said in an interview published today.
Responding to media reports that Italy would send 1,500 troops, La Russa told “Corriere della Sera” newspaper: "That is just a hypothesis, a maximum quota which we would never reach.... We are below that figure."
He said an exact number would be agreed in the coming days at a meeting between Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Asked if the actual figure was likely to be around 1,000, he replied: "Yes, I'd say so."
An aide to the defense minister told Reuters that at present an increase of between 800 and 1,000 troops was being discussed, a level that would be reached gradually in 2010 by withdrawing soldiers from peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and Lebanon.
Obama on December 1 unveiled a high-risk strategy to boost the U.S. presence in Afghanistan by 30,000 troops, starting in two to three weeks, in the hope of defeating the Taliban after eight years of war. He promised to start bringing them home from mid-2011.
However, U.S. allies with troops in Afghanistan have been reticent about committing reinforcements.
Italy has 2,795 troops there, compared with Britain's 9,000, Germany's 4,365 and France's 3,095.
The leader of the Northern League party, a key ally in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative coalition, has called for troops to be brought home.
Italy's participation in the Afghan force ran into controversy in October when British newspaper “The Times” reported that the Italian secret service paid tens of thousands of dollars to insurgents to keep the Sarobi area east of Kabul quiet while Italian forces were stationed there.
The paper suggested the bribery had cost the lives of French troops who later took charge of the area and were unaware of the payments.
La Russa at the time called the report, which cited unidentified Western military officials, "garbage" and "offensive," and said he had ordered staff to prepare a lawsuit against the Times.
At least 22 Italians soldiers have died in Afghanistan, a fraction of the total coalition losses of 1,535, almost two thirds of whom are Americans.