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Italy minister under pressure

18 October 2011, 10:27

Rome - A political storm erupted on Monday over the worst riots in Rome for years, with the government accused of failing to prevent well organised and violent groups infiltrating one of many global protests against the excesses of the financial system.

The Rome demonstration was the only one to turn violent in an international "day of rage" on Sunday against bankers and governments blamed for the world economic downturn.

Riot police were outflanked and overwhelmed by hundreds of masked and helmeted demonstrators using rocks, petrol bombs and clubs previously hidden along the route.

Only 12 rioters were arrested though police were studying video footage to try to identify about 100 others. Outraged demonstrators from the peaceful march and other Romans handed photos and videos to the police. Some of them fought the rioters on Sunday.

Damage from attacks on banks, shops, government buildings and churches was estimated at at least €2.5m. Rioters used street signs as battering rams to smash windows.

While allies of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi accused left wing opposition parties of inciting passions against the government, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni came under fire from all sides for failing to prevent the violence.

Opposition politicians said Italy's secret service had warned well ahead of time that anarchists and other radicals from the so-called "black bloc" movement were targeting a demonstration by tens of thousands of "indignant" protesters.

They demanded to know why the rioters, many from outside Rome, were allowed to get near the demonstration where they caught police unaware by rapid movement and tactics, including using two "columns" and staging a diversionary feint.


The black bloc radicals, named for the helmets and face masks they wear, first emerged in Italy at violent demonstrations against a G8 meeting in Genoa a decade ago when one was killed by police. Like protesters elsewhere they use social media and e-mail to organise.

Many were said to have trained during recent violent protests against a high-speed rail link to France. They were involved in another destructive protest in Rome last December against Berlusconi.

"Saturday was a terrible day, perhaps the worst that Rome can remember for many years. But above all it was inexplicable," said Renata Polverini, governor of the Lazio region around the capital.

"We need to understand why all these violent people, some from other parts of the world, decided to come to Rome, and how they arrived without anybody realising."

Maroni said it was lucky nobody died on Sunday and praised the work of the security forces, but police unions also criticised him, saying government cuts had left them on low wages, without fuel for their vehicles and robbed of overtime.

One Carabinieri paramilitary policeman identified only as Fabio told reporters he was lucky to survive after his armoured riot truck was ambushed and set on fire. He suffered a broken nose as he escaped the truck engulfed in flames.

One 30-year-old black bloc rioter told La Repubblica newspaper its members had been travelling to Greece for a year to learn techniques from groups protesting against austerity measures imposed in return for an international financial bailout.


"A year ago we just wanted to smash everything in sight. Now we know how to do it. We won because we had a plan, an organisation," he told the paper.

He said the rioters divided into two columns, the second held in reserve until late in the day so that police misjudged their numbers. Organised into groups of 10 or 15, they were able to slip in and out of the main demonstration by removing helmets and masks.

The rioters were reported to have positioned stockpiles of weapons including clubs, glass marbles and petrol bombs in various locations marked by white plastic bags. They also carried missiles and gas masks in back packs.

The Rome demonstration, which by some estimates involved 200 000 people, was the biggest in the weekend of global protests. It was fuelled by deepening resentment and despair at the failure of Berlusconi's government to produce viable plans to restore growth to an economy stagnant for more than a decade.

This mood has been aggravated by a €60bn austerity plan including increases in taxes and the cost of healthcare. Italy's youth unemployment, at 28%, is one of the highest in the euro zone. 

- Reuters


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