* Berlusconi government partners oppose Libya mission
* Tensions in centre-right government
By Roberto Landucci
ROME, April 27 (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Northern League coalition partners expressed scepticism over the air campaign in Libya on Wednesday, highlighting growing tensions over the issue in government.
Italy, which has joined the NATO-led operation against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, has agreed to allow its aircraft to open fire on military targets, after previously limiting their role to reconnaissance and surveillance operations.
But the decision, taken by Berlusconi following a telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, has not pleased the Northern League, which has opposed the operation and which abstained from the vote in parliament authorising Italy to join.
“We can’t understand that a decision like this, which had already been contested in cabinet, was taken like that, without consulting anyone,” Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a senior member of the League, told reporters in Milan.
He said allowing the eight aircraft Italy has assigned to the operation to use force was “a mistaken decision”.
“We don’t change our ideas from one day to the next,” he said.
Berlusconi said on Tuesday that Italian air strikes would be restricted to very circumscribed military targets and would not risk creating civilian casualties.
The opposition Democratic Party has called for a vote on the issue in parliament but government ministers say no further authorisation is needed after parliament originally approved Italian participation in the mission.
Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini defended the decision in parliament, saying it was vital to keep credibility with allies pushing Italy to take a more active role in supporting the U.N. resolution against Gaddafi.
“It would have been impossible to have avoided doing this without breaching the spirit of the U.N. Resolution 1973, which we support and without harming Italy’s ambition of making its voice count in the future of the Mediterranean,” La Russa said.
“We will not leave to others the task of deciding what will happen,” he said.
Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, has made airbases available to coalition forces but said previously it could not allow its forces to fire for fear of awakening memories of its sometimes brutal occupation.
Northern League objections have been tied in with unease over the role of France, following disagreements over issues ranging from the treatment of a wave of illegal North African migrants to a French bid for Italian food group Parmalat.
“We have become a colony of France,” the Northern League’s bluntly spoken leader Umberto Bossi was quoted as saying on Wednesday following a visit to Rome by French President Nicolas Sarkozy a day earlier.
Sarkozy, one of the main sponsors of the campaign against Gaddafi, welcomed Italy’s decision to step up its operations. (Writing by James Mackenzie) (Reuters Messaging email@example.com, Rome Newsroom +39 06 8522 4351; firstname.lastname@example.org))(