Veteran Malta Labour politician Dom Mintoff dies at 96

image source, AFP
image captionPM Mintoff tried to curb the power of the Catholic Church

Former Maltese Prime Minister Dom Mintoff, who played a dominant role in the island's politics for decades before and after its independence from the UK, has died, aged 96.

He was leader of the centre-left Labour Party from 1949 to 1984, and was PM twice, including from 1971 to 1984.

He was known for his confrontational style and fiery speeches.

As prime minister, he often clashed with the powerful Catholic Church and greatly expanded Malta's welfare state.

Mr Mintoff died at his villa near the capital, Valletta, on Monday.

Born in 1916, the son of a Maltese cook in Britain's Royal Navy, he studied at Oxford University.

After a rapid rise in the Maltese Labour Party, he first became prime minister of the then British colony in 1955.

But he resigned only three years later when his campaign for integration with the UK collapsed in the face of fierce opposition from the Catholic Church.

Later, he switched sides to become an ardent supporter of Maltese independence, which was achieved in 1964, albeit under the rival centre-right Nationalist Party, with Queen Elizabeth II remaining head of state.

Disputes with Britain

But it was during Mr Mintoff's second term as prime minister that Malta cut its ties with the British monarchy altogether and became a republic in 1974.

He also personally led the talks that ushered in the end of Britain's 200-year-old naval presence on the island in 1979.

As a counterbalance to waning British support, Mr Mintoff established close ties with Col Muammar Gaddafi's Libya.

He also forged relations with communist China, while keeping the Soviet Union at arm's length.

His government introduced a wide range of social benefits and raised living standards. Tensions with the church eased to some degree, although he continued efforts to curb its influence.

The period also saw an upsurge in violence between supporters of the Labour and Nationalist parties.

Even after stepping down as Labour leader in 1984, Mr Mintoff continued to play an influential role as a member of parliament until 1998.

That year, he voted to bring down the then Labour government in response to a growing rift with its Prime Minister, Alfred Sant.

Labour has been in opposition since then.

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