Simmering partisan clashes over Italy's long-running graft investigations burst into parliamentary warfare yesterday when leftist parties and a few centrist allies voted to fire the justice minister over his efforts to rein in the so-called Clean Hands team of corruption prosecutors.

Right-wing politicians walked out of the Senate, the upper house of Parliament, for the vote, and the rump body voted to oust Justice Minister Filippo Mancuso, by a vote of 173 to 3 with eight abstentions.

The battle centered on how far the anti-corruption campaign should go and whether tactics used by prosecutors are legal. Clean Hands prosecutions began in early 1992, with indictments of hundreds of politicians and business people over rake-offs, influence peddling and bribery.

Last week, a Milan investigative judge indicted media magnate and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on charges of bribery of tax officials. Berlusconi, who heads a rightist political alliance, charged that the indictment was politically motivated.

Mancuso became a target of criticism last summer when he opened a probe into the Milan team's 1993 prosecution of Gabriele Cagliari, the former head of the state-run oil company. Cagliari killed himself in jail after being held four months without trial.

Leftist politicians accused Mancuso of using the probe to undermine Clean Hands.

The Senate vote throws into question the future of the government of caretaker Prime Minister Lamberto Dini, to whose cabinet Mancuso belonged. Dini took power after Berlusconi's fall last December.

Mancuso is asking the country's constitutional court to block the Senate action on the grounds that a vote of no-confidence can only be called against an entire cabinet, not a single individual. Mancuso charged in a fiery self-defense that the country's ceremonial head of state, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, conspired with leftist parties to bring him down and pressured Dini into cooperating in his ouster. --