Italy's Salvini challenged over Putin praise in Polish visit

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ROME, March 8 (Reuters) - The mayor of a Polish town near the Ukraine border confronted Italian rightist politician Matteo Salvini on Tuesday while he was visiting the region, denouncing him as a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Video of the encounter went viral on Italian social media, with political opponents delighting in Salvini's discomfort as the mayor of Przemysl, Wojciech Bakun, brandished a T-shirt emblazoned with the face of the Russian leader.

Speaking in Polish and standing alongside Salvini, Bakun said he wanted to go with him to the border and to a refugee camp to "see what his friend Putin has done".

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Salvini, who in 2019 praised Putin as "the best statesmen currently on earth", was in Poland to show his solidarity with refugees fleeing the fighting in Ukraine -- a trip that raised eyebrows back home given his previous anti-migrant stance and his staunch support for Russia.

During a visit to Moscow in 2014, Salvini, who is leader of the League party, was photographed in Red Square wearing the same T-shirt of Putin that Bakun waved in his face.

Former prime minister and centrist politician Matteo Renzi urged Salvini to come back home immediately. "I told Salvini in every way that at this stage we need politics, not antics," Renzi said on Facebook.

Salvinihad earlier met Italian business and Vatican representatives in Poland, saying he wanted to "coordinate the aid, organise travel and accommodation in Italy" for the Ukrainian refugees.

More than 1.7 million Ukrainians fleeing Russia's invasion have so far crossed into Central Europe, the United Nation's refugee agency said. More than 1 million of them are currently in Poland, where Salvini is now visiting. read more

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has plunged several far-right movements across Europe into confusion, forcing some of them to swiftly abandon previous allegiance to Putin. read more

Salvini has also sought to change tack, saying last week that there was "clearly an attacker and an assaulted" in the Ukrainian crisis and that Italy had to side with the latter.

However he has not condemned Putin by name,and after the mayor's words he ignoreda call by an onlooking Italian for him to do so.

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Additional reporting by Kasia Zajaczkowska in Gdansk; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Crispian Balmer

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