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Italy's government wins confidence vote on decree targeting migrant rescue ships

ROME (Reuters) - The Italian government won a parliamentary confidence vote on Wednesday on a security and immigration decree, in a victory for Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the far-right League party.

FILE PHOTO: Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of Italy addresses a news conference at Viminale Palace, Rome, July 15 2019. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

The government, which has been riven by internal strife in recent weeks, won the vote by 325 to 248. It would have had to stand down had it lost the motion.

The decree was drawn up by Salvini, who also serves as deputy prime minister in the government, and toughens the sanctions on charity ships that seek to bring migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to Italy.

The bill now moves to the upper house Senate for final approval which is expected to come before mid-August.

The decree hikes maximum fines for charity ships that enter Italian waters without authorization to 1 million euro ($1.12 million) from a previous 50,000 euros. It also sanctions the arrest of captains who ignore orders to stay away and calls on naval authorities to seize their boats automatically.

The new measures will replace a set of rules that were only introduced in June, but which were immediately challenged by a succession of charities, including the German vessel Sea-Watch, captained by Carola Rackete.

The Sea-Watch was seized when it entered the port of Lampedusa without permission in June. However, Salvini was furious when the charity managed to raise more than one million euros via Internet appeals in the days following the high-profile case.

He was further incensed when an Italian judge swiftly released Rackete from house arrest, ruling that she had not endangered life by defying a naval blockade to reach port.

By calling a confidence vote on the decree, the government forced legislation through the house, truncating debate and sweeping away opposition amendments.

Salvini’s popularity has soared on the back of his uncompromising, anti-migrant position, with an opinion poll in Corriere della Sera newspaper on Saturday putting the League at 35.9%, more than double its score at last year’s national vote.

His policies have led to a sharp decline in the arrivals of migrants, with only 3,431 crossing the Mediterranean so far in 2019, according to official data, down 81% on the same period in 2018 and down 96% on 2017 levels.

Reporting by Angelo Amante; editing by Crispian Balmer