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Italy's coalition wobbles over high-speed rail link

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Rome (AFP)

Fault lines in Italy's coalition deepened Friday as a dispute between the heads of the ruling parties over a high-speed rail line between the cities of Turin and Lyon escalated.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League, insisted tenders to pursue work on the rail link "will be launched Monday", infuriating the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) which wants the project scrapped.

Salvini told Rete4 television late Thursday that he would continue to serve with the current coalition "unless there are too many 'noes'", in a reference to the M5S attempt to block this and other infrastructure projects.

M5S head Luigi Di Maio said Salvini was "forcing a breach of the government contract and threatening to make the government collapse", behaviour he slammed as "irresponsible".

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also waded into the row on Thursday, saying he did not think Italy needed the project.

The rail line has become a key battleground for the coalition, though their differences on the issue have until now been tamped down because neither has wanted an ensuing crisis to topple the government.

Salvini's anti-immigrant League has made significant gains in popularity however since coming to power last year, while the M5S has fallen in favour after being forced to row back on several of its electoral promises.

Many analysts think the coalition will limp on until the European parliamentary elections in May.

Success in the European polls would strengthen the League's hand further, with expectations that it could spur Salvini into pushing for fresh elections in a bid to ditch its coalition partner.

- Rid the road of one million trucks -

The key element of the project is a tunnel that would run for 57.5 kilometres (36 miles) beneath the Alps at an estimated cost of 8.6 billion euros ($9.7 billion), part of which has already been dug.

The high-speed line would halve the travel time between Turin and the French city of Lyon to just two hours, and make it possible to travel from Milan to Paris in just over four hours, down from almost seven now.

Proponents of the line, launched nearly 20 years ago and officially scheduled for completion in 2025, argue that it would rid the roads of one million trucks and avert three million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

But a contested report commissioned by the Italian government released last month said the train line and tunnel would be "very negatively profitable", losing seven billion euros up to 2059. However the composition of the commission and the methodology used have since come in for sharp criticism.

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