Italian coastguards have called for authorities to allow them to be armed, amid fears that Islamic State militants will use their new bases in Libya to attack merchant shipping in the Mediterranean.

Coastguards are demanding that they are given the status of police officers, who have the automatic right to carry firearms.

Calls have been renewed following a recent incident in which people traffickers armed with Kalashnikovs threatened Italian coastguards engaged in an operation to rescue thousands of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, reports AFP.

In a letter to Italy's transport minister, who is responsible for coastguards, the country's Coastguard Command said that having to rely on other forces for its protection was "humiliating" and "seriously undermining staff morale."

Recently, Italian fishermen demanded that the Italian navy commence patrols to ensure their safety, with fishing vessels having to venture closer to the African coast in pursuit of dwindling fishing stock.

"Our fisherman are afraid of being attacked by terrorists, they cannot be allowed to live with the nightmare of not coming home," the chairman of the Italian Federation of ship owners, Carmelo Micalizzi, said in a statement.

"They need to feel protected and more at ease in a Mediterranean that becomes more dangerous every day."

The news comes after an Islamic State radical told Buzzfeed that the jihadist organisation was smuggling militants into Europe disguised as refugees from the Syrian civil war, where thousands have fled on boats, and disembarked in northern Italy.