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Italy Senate panel votes down Salvini probe over stranded migrants

FILE PHOTO: Leader of Italy's far-right party Matteo Salvini wearing a protective face mask, leaves the Senate as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Rome

ROME (Reuters) - An Italian Senate committee on Tuesday rejected a request by magistrates to investigate Matteo Salvini, head of the rightwing League party, for refusing a migrant rescue boat permission to land last year when he was interior minister.

Salvini refused to allow a ship carrying over 100 migrants rescued at sea to land in Italy in August last year, while serving in the previous coalition government.

An Italian prosecutor eventually ordered the seizure and evacuation of the ship, operated by Spanish aid group Open Arms.

The committee rejected by 13 votes to 7 a court request to proceed with an investigation on charges of alleged kidnapping of migrants. A full upper house vote could still reverse the committee decision.

Under Italian law, former ministers cannot be tried for actions while in office without parliamentary authorisation.

"As interior minister, it was my duty to curb illegal immigration and fight human smuggling and slavery," Salvini commented on Facebook after the committee's decision.

The ruling anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and centre-left Democratic Party voted to lift Salvini's immunity, while independents and senators from the right supported him.

Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's small Italia Viva coalition, which supports the government, did not vote, while one 5-Star senator voted against an investigation.

In 14 months as interior minister, Salvini curbed migrant arrivals and threatened fines for rescue ships operated by independent aid groups, while pressing other European states to take in more migrants.

The Senate has already authorised magistrates to press charges over a separate but almost identical case, concerning migrants blocked aboard a coastguard ship last July.

Salvini's anti-immigrant League is still Italy's strongest party with around 27% support, recent polls suggest, but that approval rating has dipped during the coronavirus crisis.


(Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Nick Macfie)