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Clashes with fans as Pitchfork protests enter third day

Berlusconi urges government to deal with 'regressive' policies

11 December, 17:12
Clashes with fans as Pitchfork protests enter third day (By Sandra Cordon) (ANSA) - Rome, December 11 - As anti-authority protests in several Italian centres by the so-called "Forconi" (Pitchfork) movement attracted hard-core soccer fans Wednesday, the government demanded respect for elected officials and for law and order.

In the face of mounting anti-government, anti-tax and anti-austerity protests across the country, Premier Enrico Letta called for respect for elected officials and denounced suggestions that police stop protecting politicians. "This republican parliament and our offices demand respect in such bitter times," Letta told parliament ahead of a confidence vote Wednesday on his government's plans for 2014.

One day earlier, 5-Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo encouraged police to refrain from protecting politicians, after officers in riot gear at Pitchfork protests doffed helmets in several separate episodes, which was widely interpreted as a sign of solidarity with demonstrators.

However, speaking before the vote that aims to consolidate his power after political reshuffling in the last two weeks, Letta stressed that the "loyalty" of Italy's police force to republican values is "unquestionable". House Speaker Laura Boldrini backed Letta's anti-Grillo stance while acknowledging the legitimacy of the Pitchfork protestors' concerns.

"The protest cannot be ignored, but heard. It is the duty of those with public responsibility to give them an answer," said Boldrini, who also referred to former South African president Nelson Mandala.

"What cannot be done, as Mandela has taught us, is to sow hatred. Oppositions are a sign of democracy, but you should not stir up, nor exploit the anger and discontent or fuel dangerous feelings," Boldrini said.

Still, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano warned that the government will not hesitate to "suppress" criminal behavior by the protesters whose demonstrations have stretched from Italy's south to the north, where cities such as Milan and Turin have so far shown the greatest turnout. Protestors have shouted opposition to austerity-driven tax hikes, voiced complaints about tax-collection agency Equitalia, and denounced capitalism and the euro. Recent protests have also attracted rightist groups and hard-core "ultra" soccer fans.

Supporters of Dutch club Ajax clashed with protesters ahead of their side's Champions League match against AC Milan later Wednesday. The clashes occurred after around 20 Ajax fans got off a bus that had been held up by the protesters and started to insult them. Alfano, who is also deputy premier, said that if the line is crossed from peaceful protest to criminal acts, the State will take action.

"We will ensure, through the means of the State, peaceful demonstration...but we will not have any qualms about suppressing threats and intimidation that may be an expression of criminal attitudes," said Alfano. Some protesters had vowed to mount a large-scale demonstration in Rome unless MPs abstain from Wednesday's confidence vote, which apparently had no effect as the vote carried on as scheduled.

There had also been reports that ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, who is trying to bring down the government from the helm of his revived Forza Italia party, was considering working with the Pitchfork movement.

But Wednesday Berlusconi, who was ejected from the Senate in late November following a definitive conviction for tax fraud, said he postponed a scheduled meeting with protesting truck drivers "to avoid any possible exploitation".

Still, he urged the Letta government to deal with what he called the legitimate concerns of people who have had to deal with "two years of regressive policies" since Berlusconi was driven from office in late 2011.

Across Italy, the Pitchfork demonstrations have varied in style and number between cities, with some turning violent, including rocks thrown, and property damaged.

In the northern industrial city of Turin, where protesters opposed to austerity-driven tax hikes have snarled traffic, a large group of student demonstrators was at the forefront of earlier marches. In the port city of Genoa, demonstrators occupied the central square, and in nearby Savona they organized in front of the offices of tax-collection agency Equitalia. The Pitchfork movement started among struggling Sicilian farmers early last year and has since spread to their counterparts in northern Italy, enlisting disgruntled or bankrupt truckers and small businessmen as well as swathes of recently impoverished citizens along the way.