Italian minister resigns after Libya riots

A right-wing Italian minister, whose wearing of a T-shirt with a Prophet Muhammad caricature was blamed for deadly riots in Libya, resigned Saturday.

The government, meanwhile, scrambled to repair relations with Tripoli, a major supplier of oil and natural gas.

Reforms Minister Roberto Calderoli of the anti-immigrant Northern League party resigned following a demand by Premier Silvio Berlusconi  who is seeking re-election April 9  that he step down immediately.

Friday's rioting outside the Italian Consulate in the Libyan coastal city of Benghazi claimed at least 10 lives. It was the highest reported death toll from any of the protests in recent weeks over cartoons of the prophet that were originally published by a Danish newspaper.

"We hope to have avoided retaliation against our businesses in Libya and other Islamic countries and against our soldiers in Iraq, in Afghanistan," Berlusconi told a campaign rally in Verona.

About 1,400 Italians, many of them businessmen, live in Libya, where Italy has major oil and natural gas interests. Some 90 Italians live in Benghazi.

Italy's consul general in Benghazi, Giovanni Pirrello, told two TV stations that four vehicles, including his own, were torched in the rioting. He also said security has been stepped up at a Roman Catholic church in the city where rioters had burned a tree.

Berlusconi blamed the riots in Libya, Italy's former colony, on the "thoughtless action by our minister," the Italian news agency ANSA quoted him in Verona.

Calderoli described his wearing of the T-shirt, which he showed off on state TV Friday, as his way of showing "solidarity to all those who were hit by the blind violence of religious fanaticism."

But he said it was not his intention to offend Islam nor to be the pretext for the violence in Libya.

Italy moved fast to limit damage in relations between Rome and Tripoli.

Berlusconi's office said the premier had a "long and friendly" telephone conversation with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, while Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini visited Rome's main mosque to stress Italian respect for Islam, reports AP.

O.Ch.