ROME, Jan. 16 (Xinhua) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said here on Wednesday that Italy is an important partner and the U.S.-Italian defense relationship is deep and enduring.
"Italy is one of our best partners in the world and a key member of NATO," Panetta said after meeting his Italian counterpart Giampaolo Di Paola in Rome.
Panetta said that he was very grateful for the strong support Italy has provided to U.S. troops stationed in the Mediterranean country, where the United States have key military bases that "are critical to our ability to be able to respond to any crisis in the region."
Panetta stressed that Italy is a strong partner nation in NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, where Italians have a lead role in the ongoing transition.
The two officials also discussed the ongoing French military operation to help the Mali government combat Islamist extremists.
"Italy and the United States have ensured support to the French action in Mali to stop the jihadists advance," Di Paola said.
The European Union foreign ministers are expected at an extraordinary meeting on Mali on Thursday to formally establish a training mission in support of the French action.
Di Paola also said that the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite communication system under construction in southern Sicily is "a strategic asset" both for the United States and NATO.
"It is an important presence that must be pursued," he said, referring to the recent move of the island's regional president Rosario Crocetta to suspend works following a series of local protests triggered by the system's possible negative impact over health and environment.