June 25, 2018 / 9:03 AM / 22 days ago

Italy's League advances in local polls amid immigration crackdown

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s ruling right-wing League party gained ground in local elections at the weekend, strengthening its hand as it cracks down on immigrants fleeing Africa and urges the European Union to revise its policy on asylum-seekers.

Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini looks on during the news conference at the Viminale in Rome, Italy, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

The League, in a governing coalition with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, extended its political reach in a second round of municipal elections on Sunday, taking over some strongholds of the centre-left, which lost power nationally in March.

The results are a boost for League leader Matteo Salvini, who flew on Monday to Libya, staging post for waves of Africans fleeing to Italy in flimsy boats, many with the ultimate aim of settling in other EU countries such as Germany and France.

The elections appeared to confirm opinion poll findings which show the League doubling its support since the March 4 election and putting it on par with its larger coalition partner.

Salvini, who wants the EU to do more to help Libya stop people making the perilous journey, announced his departure for Libya in a Twitter post on Monday, without giving details.

He is due to meet Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Taher Siala and Prime Minister Fayez Seraj, and appear at a news conference there later on Monday.

Salvini, interior minister responsible for border control, wants his EU partners to revise the rules governing asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean so that the bloc shares out the burden of handling them.

Under current EU rules, responsibility for handling boatloads of asylum seekers rests with the country where they first disembark. Italy, which lies close to North Africa, has taken in some 650,000 boat migrants since 2014.

Salvini’s decision to close port access to foreign-registered rescue vessels has caused a standoff with Malta, which also has refused to allow them to dock.

Rescue vessel Lifeline is carrying more than 230 migrants and is stuck in international waters in the Mediterranean.

A private cargo ship, the Alexander Maersk, also has been waiting to be assigned a port since it picked up 113 migrants off southern Italy on Friday, the ship owner said.

Additional reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio in ROME and Aidan Lewis in TUNIS; Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Alison Williams

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