SILVIO Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, faced his first crisis in office after a notorious leader of the xenophobic Northern League was named his "minister for simplification of legislation".
Libya threatened yesterday to end its help in the fight against illegal immigrants crossing the Mediterranean over the appointment of Roberto Calderoli. A controversial figure, he sparked riots in 2006 after wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad during a television debate.
The incident led to the deaths of 11 people as they tried to storm the Italian consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi, but there is little sign that Mr Calderoli has tempered his opinions. Last month he proposed a "pig day" in protest against plans to build more mosques, with pigs lead over land slated for construction to defile it.
Hours after his appointment, Tripoli announced it would no longer co-operate in patrolling waters between the two countries. Mr Berlusconi said he was "confident we can clarify and soothe over the situation". Immigration was a key issue in the election that returned him to power.
The Libyan interior ministry said the country was "exhausting its resources and spending a vast quantity of money to protect the Italian coast from the wave of illegal immigration". It was "no longer responsible … because the Italian side did not make good on its commitment to provide support for Libya".
A week ago Qaddafi International Foundation – a charity chaired by the son of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi – warned of "catastrophic repercussions" to bilateral ties if Mr Berlusconi made Mr Calderoli a minister. There were also reports Libya would toughen visa requirements for Italian oil workers.
Angela Maraventano, a Northern League senator from Lampedusa, which has seen thousands of illegal immigrants land there, said yesterday: "Libya has never properly collaborated … This Libyan threat against Italy is the usual Gaddafi bluff."
The Northern League, a long-standing ally of Mr Berlusconi, is known for its vehement anti-immigrant rhetoric. The party made surprise gains in April's election and was rewarded with four cabinet posts, including the interior ministry.
The T-shirt gaffe saw Mr Calrderoli quit a previous Mr Berlusconi cabinet. Just months later, however, he sparked diplomatic outrage when he said Italy's World Cup victory over France had been against a team of "Negroes, Muslims and communists".
Speaking on an Italian TV news show yesterday, he said he was "sorry" for wearing the T-shirt, but said he had been misinterpreted.
"Mine was a message of peace and rapprochement between the monotheistic religions, but it was interpreted in a different way. I hope that today there are no problems linked to something that should now be considered closed."