NATO is three months away from launching patrols off Libya as part of a plan to stop migrants arriving in Italy, Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said in an interview published Monday.
Pinotti told daily La Stampa that Rome was expecting its allies to approve the plan at a summit of NATO leaders in Warsaw on July 7.
The mission would be part of a broader Italian plan to close the Western Mediterranean route into the European Union based on the return of so-called economic migrants to their countries of origin.
"At the NATO level we have asked for Operation Active Endeavour to be recalibrated from an anti-terrorist operation in the Eastern Mediterranean to one which oversees the Libyan coast," Pinotti said.
"During the recent meeting we had in Luxembourg, Secretary General (Jens) Stoltenberg told me that the proposal had been welcomed."
Asked if she expected a green light for the operation at the Warsaw summit, Pinotti replied: "Yes, certainly for the coordination of missions in the Mediterranean. At this summit the proposal should become an effective decision."
NATO is already operating a naval force in the Aegean Sea to stop migrant boats reaching the Greek islands from Turkey.
But an operation off Libya would be more complicated and potentially given the country's instability and the presence in some coastal regions of militants allied to the Islamic State group.
Turning migrant boats back to Libya would also be hugely controversial given the unstable situation there.
Pinotti said the Libyan situation would be discussed at talks Monday in Hanover, Germany between US President Barack Obama and the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy.
Asked what she expected from the meeting, Pinotti said: "Support, even for the most difficult part which is the return to their own lands of those who do not have a right to stay.
"In the case of the Aegean, there is a NATO country with whom we are cooperating on the final destination of refugees, but in Libya no."
Pinotti confirmed Italy was pushing for the establishment of migrant reception centres in countries of origin. "This is the road to follow, combined with respect for human rights and support for countries of origin to handle the repatriated."
Italy is preparing to lead a UN-backed peacekeeping force in Libya, if and when a recently installed national unity government is deemed to have obtained sufficient authority to ask for international help in stabilising the country.
Pinotti said Italy and several allies were prepared to guarantee the security of the force.