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Italian premier lashes out at senator who likened 1st black Cabinet minister to orangutan

A leading Italian senator has been chastised by Premier Enrico Letta for likening the country's first black Cabinet minister to an orangutan, the latest high-profile racist episode in a nation grappling with immigration.

Letta in a statement Sunday denounced Roberto Calderoli's words as "inacceptable" and "beyond every limit." Calderoli, the Senate's vice-president and a leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, later said he was making a joke and meant no offense to Cecile Kyenge, a Congolese-born doctor who is the country's immigration minister.

The Northern League isn't in the government but has been the closest ally of former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's center-right party, which is Letta's main partner in the coalition government.

Italian media quoted Kyenge as saying she had nothing to say to Calderoli.