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Task force set up after immigrant riot

Govt vows to step up policing, improve conditions

08 January, 21:56
Task force set up after immigrant riot

(ANSA) - Rome, January 8 - The Italian government on Friday set up a task force after two days of rioting by African immigrants following a shooting incident in the Calabrian town of Rosarno.

The interior ministry formed the task force with the welfare ministry and regional authorities in Calabria.

The task force, which has has been set up in the prefect's office in Reggio Calabria, "will address not only policing but also the exploitation of immigrants and improving their living conditions," the ministry said.

Hundreds of farm labourers wrecked cars and shop fronts and torched litter in Rosarno on Thursday night while 200 put up road blocks Friday morning before 2,000 marched through the town and demanding a meeting with a commissioner appointed when the council was dissolved for mafia infiltration last year.

The commissioner, Francesco Bagnato, promised to improve their rundown living conditions and prevent recurrences but said ''just one more incident'' might spark more disorder.

After the meeting, a small group of immigrants threw stones at a TV film crew as they walked back to their lodgings.

During the unrest, 14 immigrants were hurt and 18 police.

Seven immigrants were arrested as well as two Italians, a man who tried to run an immigrant over with a bulldozer and a youth who attacked a immigrant.

Another man was under investigation after firing a shot into the air when the protesters gathered under his house Friday.

Thursday's shooting, in which several Africans were hit by air rifle fire, was not linked to the powerful local 'Ndrangheta mafia but probably an ''act of intolerance,'' investigators say.

Local youths are believed to have been responsible.

The riot, in which immigrants shouted ''we are not animals and waved placards saying ''Italians here are racist,'' led to a counter-protest by residents who mounted their own road-block and told reporters "we are no longer prepared to tolerate this situation".

The local group also succeeded in meeting Bagnato who vowed to "do his utmost" to bring the situation under control.

Bagnato, appointed after the city council was dissolved last year because of mafia infiltration, said he had told the immigrants that police would protect them and ''they must not confuse attacks by individuals with the attitude of the citizenry as a whole''. He said ''just one more incident'' might set off other riots and he was worried about the ''immigrants' violent reaction''.

Bagnato stressed that the town had recently improved living conditions by supplying chemical toilets and containers linked to the water mains.

''But the tension with the town population remains very high''.

Doctors without Borders spokesperson told ANSA the 2,500 immigrants at Rosarno were living in ''unhealthy and degrading conditions'', Dr. Loris De Filipi said local volunteers with the organization described ''highly unsanitary living conditions'' in tent settlements and abandoned warehouses where the fruit and vegetable pickers hole up.

''We have made repeated attempts to bring the Calabria region's attention to the serious humanitarian situation where these immigrants live,'' he said.

De Filipi added that squalid living conditions were prevalent among immigrant settlements throughout the country and required immediate attention from the government.

Calabria Governor Agazio Loiero claimed the government had pledged funds for Rosarno but failed to deliver.

"I have reported this situation time and time again. The interior ministry agreed to send money but nothing happened".

Trade unions called for a government probe into the way the workers were exploited. POLICY TOO LENIENT TOO LONG, SAYS MARONI.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni argued that such incidents showed that Italy's immigration policy had been too lenient for too long.

''In all these years illegal immigration has been tolerated without doing anything effective, an immigration that on the one hand has fed crime and on the other has led to situations of extreme squalor such as that at Rosarno''.

Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government, in which Maroni's rightwing Northern League plays a key role, has moved strongly to stem immigration from north Africa.

Under a recent accord with Tripoli, criticised by human rights groups, immigrants are turned back in the open seas before they reach Italian waters.

Maroni said Friday the policy had been a success, stopping arrivals on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, and vowed to bring situations such as those Rosarno under control.

But the leader of the largest opposition party, Democratic Party (PD) chief Piero Bersani, accused Maroni of "passing the buck" on to illegal immigration and said Italy's recent clampdown had exacerbated the problem by forcing immigrants underground.

''I say what is needed now is to calm the situation in Rosarno. There is mafia, exploitation, xenophobia and racism there. You have to go to the roots''.

''But I'm very sorry Maroni did not miss a chance to pin the blame on illegal immigration,'' Bersani said.

The Rosarno riot was Italy's worst case of racial unrest since hundreds of immigrants rioted near Naples in September 2008 after the Camorra mafia killed eight North Africans.

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