ROME -- On the defensive after a deadly migrant boat shipwreck near an Italian beach, Italy's right-wing government is contending that Russian mercenaries in Libya are behind an uptick in migrant arrivals in alleged retaliation for Western support for Ukraine.
On Monday evening, Defense Minister Guido Crosetto, a leading figure in Premier Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy party, described the recent increase in smugglers' unseaworthy boats setting out for Italian shores from Libya as "part of a clear strategy of hybrid war that the Wagner division, mercenaries paid by Russia, is carrying out, utilizing its significant weight in several African countries."
Building on that assertion, Brothers of Italy lawmaker Silvio Giovine on Tuesday depicted the migratory flows toward Italy as "retaliation against Europe and the West."
The far-right lawmaker claimed that members of the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group in Libya aim to destabilize the North African country. For years, fighting among rival Libyan militias has left the country a largely lawless land where traffickers and smugglers can thrive.
Some analysts quickly dismissed Crosetto's assertions that the Wagner group was behind the migrant arrivals, which so far this year number roughly triple those of each of the previous two years.
"This is nonsense," tweeted Wolfram Lacher, an analyst with SWP, a Berlin-based institute researching foreign and security policy. "The surge in migrant departures from eastern Libya over the past year is overseen by the Haftar clan" -- a reference to Khalifa Hifter, a powerful Libyan mililtary commander.
Wagner mercenaries have been aiding Hifter forces and are centered mainly in central and eastern Libya.
Other Meloni allies in recent days have cited Italian intelligence services' fears that some 685,000 migrants now in Libya could soon be headed on smugglers' vessels toward Italy. But U.N. migration agency officials have called that scenario implausible, saying that while as many as 700,000 migrants might reside in Libya, many are from African countries farther south and want to return home after working in Libya.
Since its inception five months ago, Meloni's coalition government, which includes anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini, has cracked down on humanitarian rescue boats operating in the central Mediterranean north of Libya.
Last week, a Cabinet decree targeted smugglers by making it a distinct crime if a shipwreck or capsizing results in multiple migrant deaths, with conviction bringing up to 30 years in prison.
Meloni and some of her ministers have come under fire by critics -- opposition leaders and humanitarian groups -- which contend the Feb. 26 shipwreck might have been avoided had Italian Coast Guard rescue vessels been quickly dispatched as soon as the migrant boat, which had sailed from Turkey, was spotted by a patrol plane operated by the European border agency.
The premier contends she is blameless, saying on Monday night that "my conscience is clear."
A staunch backer of military aid for Ukraine as it defends itself from Russia's full-scale invasion, Meloni cautioned against "putting one's head in the sand, letting mobsters and traffickers decide who enters our country, letting the Wagner mercenaries and the fundamentalists continue to get footholds in Africa."
Wagner's owner Yevgeny Prigozhin has rejected Italy's claims. In a comment posted on his messaging app channel, Prigozhin denied that Wagner had any relation to the uptick in smugglers' boats.
"We have no idea what's going on with the migrant crisis," Prigozhin said. "We have nothing to do with it. We have our own business to deal with," an apparent reference to Wagner fighters' role in Russia's offensive in Ukraine.
The known death toll in the shipwreck off the "toe" of the Italian peninsula rose to 80 on Tuesday with the recovery of a man's body in the sea. Eighty people survived.
Another minister from Meloni's party, Adolfo Urso, who is a former member of the parliamentary commission on intelligence matters, noted that Wagner's role in Africa was cited in a 2021 report to lawmakers.
That report spelled out, said Urso, who is business enterprise minister, that "there was a specific strategy of Russian power aimed at controlling the country in which there was a flow of immigration that then occurred in our Mediterranean."
Information for this article was contributed by Sam Magdy and Vladimir Isachenkov of The Associated Press.