Sabratha, Libya
Sabratha, Libya

ROME - Two Italian civilians held hostages in Libya were probably killed in fighting in the western Libyan city of Sabratha, the Italian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.

Libyan security forces said they had killed seven suspected Islamic State fighters in a raid on a militant hideout in Sabratha on Wednesday, and later released photographs of two Western men who had also apparently been killed in the attack.

Italy's Foreign Ministry said the men might be two of the four employees of the Italian construction company Bonatti who were kidnapped last July near a compound owned by oil and gas group Eni.

It named the possible victims as Fausto Piano and Salvatore Failla but said formal verification was difficult because they did not have access to the bodies.

Local Libyan brigades have been fighting in Sabratha since last week, when militants briefly overran the city center and beheaded more than 10 brigade members.

That followed a U.S. air strike on the outskirts of Sabratha on Feb. 19 in which more than 40 people were killed. The Serbian government said two Serbian nationals who had been held hostage since November were among the dead.

Sabratha is one of several Libyan cities where militants loyal to Islamic State have established a presence, taking advantage of the political chaos that has plagued the North African country since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.

Italy's Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper said on Thursday that Italy had sent some 40 secret service agents to Libya "some weeks ago", and that an additional 50 special forces operatives were set to join them. There was no immediate confirmation of this.

The former colonial power has said it is ready to send a much larger contingent to Libya to help train local forces as soon as a U.N.-backed unity government is formed.

Officials in Rome, speaking off the record, said these troops would not be involved in front line action. Any direct military action would only be ordered to defend Italian interests, such as Eni installations, they said.