ROME — The U.S. defense secretary has given his firm backing to a huge U.S. antenna station planned for Sicily that is at the center of a battle over health fears.

The antenna station, which will support the U.S. Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite communications network, has provoked angry protest from Sicilians, who have clashed violently with police at the planned site. The controversy comes as Sicily’s prominence as a strategic military site is gaining.

Despite support from the Italian government, the governor of the region of Sicily opted Jan. 12 to block the program pending further tests on the health consequences of the planned antennas’ electromagnetic emissions.

“I know there are concerns, in particular with regards to perhaps what it might do to impact the health of citizens in the vicinity,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Jan. 16 during a visit to Rome. “I understand those concerns. We have done studies to indicate that there are no risks in terms of health as a result of that. But I want to make sure that we do everything possible to address the concerns of those residents. They too have to be convinced that this is something that can be done without impacting their health or well-being.”

The MUOS program, which is being run by the U.S. Navy, will rely on a network of four satellites and four ground stations with antennas to provide cellphone-like communications to military forces. The four ground stations are in western Australia, southeast Virginia, Hawaii and Niscemi in Sicily, about 60 kilometers inland from U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella.

Protesters in Sicily have warned of the potential health effects of electromagnetic emissions from the ground station and were involved in violent clashes with police Jan. 11 as they tried to stop four truckloads of construction materials from entering the site. The following day, further work on the site was halted by Sicily Gov. Rosario Crocetta, overruling Italy’s central government in Rome, which had declared the ground station “a strategic site for the military defense of the nation and of our allies,” a few days earlier.

Crocetta said he was not seeking to provoke a diplomatic incident with the United States and merely required further technical details about the site before he would allow work to proceed. But he warned that documents already furnished by the U.S. Navy had revealed that electromagnetic emissions from the site when operated at full power would exceed those permitted by local legislation.

After meeting Panetta on Jan. 16 in Rome, Italian Defense Minister Giampaolo di Paola threw his weight behind the program, calling it “a fully strategic asset for the Atlantic alliance, not only for the U.S. It is an important program that needs to be taken forward, safeguarding the health and the security of the population.”

Crocetta, a center-left governor elected recently on an island that has historically elected right-wing politicians, may now face a legal challenge from Rome if he decides to shut down the station.

The row has drawn attention to Sicily’s renewed role as a strategic outpost in the Mediterranean. Long considered a prized asset sitting at the center of the sea, Sicily has been conquered over the centuries by Normans, Arabs and most recently the Allies during World War II.

Now, turmoil in North Africa, starting with the Arab Spring followed by the Libya campaign, has put the Mediterranean, and Sicily, back on the map. Sigonella is hosting U.S. Air Force Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and plans are afoot to base U.S. Navy UAVs there as well as Global Hawks operated under the NATO Allied Ground Surveillance program.

During the air campaign over Libya in 2011, Danish, Swedish, Emirati and French aircraft all used Sigonella as a base. The air base at Trapani on the west coast of Sicily was used by Italian Typhoons, Tornados, AMX and F16s, as well as by Canadian aircraft and British tanker aircraft.

Following the campaign, the Italian air force has deployed about eight Typhoons to Trapani, in addition to those based at Grosseto in central Italy and at Gioia del Colle air base in Puglia in the heel of Italy.

“Libya was the catalyst for the decision to base the aircraft at Trapani as well as at the other two bases,” an Italian defense source said.

Now, Italy may be asked to offer Sicilian bases for use by aircraft heading to Mali to support the French campaign against fundamentalist insurgents.

“Sicily is becoming increasingly strategic for Italy, and Puglia is likely to be empowered too,” said Nicola Pedde, the director of the Rome-based Institute for Global Studies.

The U.S. decision to base Global Hawks and build a satellite ground station on the island also reflected an evolving U.S. tendency, he added. “It reflects how the U.S. is seeking to transfer to partners the physical management of crises while aiding them with technology,” he said.

Marcus Weisgerber, on travel with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Italy, contributed to this report.