ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi patched up a row with coalition allies over Italy’s participation in the NATO-led operation in Libya, agreeing to a vague time limit on the mission to ease their concerns.
The agreement on Tuesday appears to have averted the threat of a major government split over the operation in Libya, which Berlusconi’s partners in the Northern League have opposed from the start.
A split in Berlusconi’s own PDL party last year sharply cut his majority in parliament, leaving his centre-right government dependent on the Northern League for its survival.
Senior leaders of the League, including its fiery chief Umberto Bossi, have openly criticised the decision to join the coalition conducting airstrikes against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s troops.
Two weeks before local elections on May 15-16, which the League hopes will consolidate its power base in the prosperous regions of northern Italy, the party has sought to open some distance from Berlusconi, whose approval ratings are in a slump.
After a meeting on Tuesday, officials from the PDL and the League, which had originally wanted to fix a set limit, agreed to present a joint motion in parliament specifying that the mission in Libya will have a time limit but that this will be agreed with Italy’s international partners.
A vote on the motion is scheduled on Wednesday.
“There’s been an agreement on Libya which safeguards the points in our motion,” said Marco Reguzzoni, head of the Northern League parliamentary group.
The deal comes ahead of a meeting in Rome on Thursday of foreign ministers and officials from countries in the Libya mission and Italian diplomats said Rome’s commitment to the operation was unchanged.
“All missions have an end and this is no exception but objectives come first,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The sooner the objectives are achieved, the sooner the mission will end.”
Vice Admiral Rinaldo Veri, commander of the naval element of NATO’s Libya mission, said on Tuesday the mission would “last until Gaddafi stops attacking the civilian population,” dampening any hopes of a quick end to the conflict.
Italy, the former colonial power in Libya and previously one of Gaddafi’s best friends in Europe, has trod a fine diplomatic line since the outbreak of the crisis, joining the NATO coalition but initially preventing its forces from opening fire.
It has since authorised the eight warplanes it has assigned to the operation and which had previously been restricted to surveillance and reconnaissance operations, to use their weapons on military targets.
Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Matthew Jones