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Italy parties for unification 150th, amid cracks of dissent

Northern League figures snub anniversary celebrations

17 March, 16:56
Italy parties for unification 150th, amid cracks of dissent

(ANSA) - Rome, March 17 - Italy on Thursday continued to toast the 150th anniversary of its unification after a night of partying in the big cities, although divisions were also on display with many Northern League figures dissenting.

Hundreds of thousands celebrated from dusk to dawn at shows, concerts, ceremonies and firework displays despite heavy rain in many places, while museums, theatres and monuments were open all night in cities such as Rome and Turin.

''We are celebrating the best of our nation,'' said Italian President Giorgio Napolitano ahead of a series of a ceremonies on Thursday, a special one-off national holiday for the unity anniversary. ''Without unity our nation would have been swept away by history... If we are united, we will overcome all the challenges that await us''.

United States President Barack Obama joined the festivities with an official proclamation in which he encouraged ''all Americans to learn more about the history of Italian unification and to honor the enduring friendship between the people of Italy and the people of the United States''.

Obama said Italy and the US were bound by friendship and honoured ''the joint efforts of Americans and Italians to foster freedom, democracy, and our shared values throughout the world''. The rousing Italian national anthem was played over and over on TV and people throughout the country hung the Italian red-white-and-green flag from their windows and balconies.

Many towns also staged historical re-enactments recalling Giuseppe Garibaldi's heroic campaign to bring the different states of the peninsular together, achieved with the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, although the Papal States and Rome were not conquered until 1870.

On Thursday morning Napolitano, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and other leading institutional figures took part in a ceremony at Rome's Vittoriano monument, the seat of the tomb of Italy's unknown soldier.

Napolitano and Berlusconi went to the Pantheon too in order to lay a laurel wreath at the tomb of Italy's first head of state, King Vittorio Emanuele II, an event also attended by members of the Savoy dynasty, who were deposed as the royal family when the nation voted to become a republic after World War II.

The president and the premier also went to a 21-gun salute by a statue of Garibaldi at Rome's Janiculum Hill where some of the crowd called on Berlusconi, under fire after being indicted for allegedly using an underage prostitute, to resign, while others encouraged him to ''resist''. In the night sites such as the presidential palace, the Vittoriano - inaugurated in 1911 for the 50th anniversary of unification - and the Colosseum in Rome were illuminated with red, white and green lighting for a stunning spectacle.

Many of Italy's daily newspapers came out Thursday with special front pages devoted exclusively to paying homage to the unity celebrations.

Not everyone was feeling patriotic though.

MPs belonging to the Northern League, a key ally to Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, were expected to desert a unification ceremony in the Lower House Thursday, although the regionalist party's government ministers were likely to attend.

Members of the League, which had objected to March 17 being declared a national holiday this year, were jeered in Milan after setting up a desk outside the town hall to show they were not taking the day off to celebrate.

The party newspaper, La Padania, ran a headline bemoaning ''150 years of damaging centralism'' and said the only reason to celebrate was that this will come to an end with the government's federalism project.

Furthermore, the governor of the mostly German-speaking northern region of Alto Adige, Luis Durnwalder, caused a big stir in the run-up to Thursday's festivities by announcing he would not attend because there is ''nothing to celebrate''.

Durnwalder is leader of a party that has always regretted Italy's post-WWI expansion to the South Tyrol.

Thursday's events are only part of a year-long programme of initiatives.

These include the building of new national museums for unification figures Giuseppe Mazzini and Garibaldi and a host of exhibits and conventions in Italy and abroad.

Scores of foreign heads of state, including Obama, have been invited to more anniversary celebrations on June 2, Italy's Republic Day national holiday.