ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Matteo Renzi appointed Paolo Gentiloni, a close ally and former communications minister, to be Italy's new foreign minister on Friday, in a surprise decision.
Gentiloni, who was sworn in on Friday night by President Giorgio Napolitano, replaces Federica Mogherini, who left the foreign ministry this week to become the EU's new top diplomat.
As foreign minister, Gentiloni, a senior member in the prime minister's Democratic Party (PD), will now play a key role in the remaining two months of Italy's presidency of the European Union, which ends on Dec. 31.
He faces the delicate task of dealing with Russia over gas supplies for energy-needy Italy and will also have to liaise with other countries on immigration issues.
Italy has long called for the EU to share more of the financial costs and social burden it has to confront because of the migrants and refugees who arrive on its southern shores from Africa and the Middle East.
An emergency Italian sea rescue mission called "Mare Nostrum" (Our Sea), which saved the lives of more than 100,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East, is being closed to make way for a more limited operation called Triton, overseen by EU border control agency Frontex. Human rights groups have warned the smaller-sized operation could lead to many more migrants drowning.
Gentiloni, 59, had not been mentioned in political circles as a candidate in recent weeks. Renzi had wanted to replace Mogherini with another woman, to preserve gender parity in his 16-member Cabinet, sources had said.
Gentiloni is a member of the lower house foreign affairs committee and speaks English, but he is not known as a specialist in international diplomacy.
The decision to select Gentiloni appeared to have been taken after Renzi met Napolitano on Thursday to discuss the appointment of a new foreign affairs chief, suggesting Gentiloni was a compromise candidate.
Gentiloni is seen as a Renzi loyalist, but also as a behind-the-scenes figure who does not seek the limelight. He was communications minister in the government of Romano Prodi from 2006-8.
He takes over from Mogherini, who has been appointed the European Union's head of foreign affairs and security, replacing Britain's Catherine Ashton and giving Italy more sway in Brussels.
Renzi, 39, has faced criticism, even from within his own party, for having surrounded himself with low-profile ministers who do not overshadow his leadership and media presence.
Gentiloni has a degree in political science and is a former journalist. In the late 1990s, he was on the team that organized the 2000 Catholic Church Jubilee celebrations in Rome, and in 2005-2006 served as head of a parliamentary committee that oversees the activity of state broadcaster RAI, which is publicly funded.
(Reporting by Paolo Biondi and Roberto Landucci,; writing by Steve Scherer and Philip Pullella, editing by Isla Binnie and Susan Fenton)