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  • Soldiers patrol Italy’s streets

Soldiers patrol Italy’s streets

Visitors to Italy have begun facing the sight of squaddies patrolling streets as 1,000 were deployed in major cities.

It is the first step in a €25 million, six-month exercise that will see 3,000 troops used across Italy in anti-crime measures promised by Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi earlier in the year.

Armed units were this week put on the streets of Rome, Florence, Palermo, Naples, Turin, Milan and other major urban centres to help Italian police officers and Carabinieri watch over tourist attractions, embassies and immigrant holding centres.

They have been out in full force at Milan’s Duomo cathedral and its iconic railway station. The largest number, around 1,000, will be stationed in the capital. But they will be barred from the centre of Rome after mayor Gianni Alemanno argued it would scare off tourists.

The move has also drawn fierce criticism from other quarters across Italy. Former forces chief Gen Mario Buscemi drew comparisons with the 20,000 soldiers that flooded the streets of Sicily in a 1992 anti-Mafia blitz and dismissed the present plans as a publicity stunt. He said: “There are 3,000 for all Italy…their support will be symbolic.”

One-time Rome city supremo Achille Serra was even more scathing as he dismissed the move as “useless and ineffective” and added: “We’re not in Beirut.”

Opposition interior ministry spokesman Marco Minniti was equally critical and said: “It will make Italy look like a country in the grip of an uncontrolled security emergency, Paratroopers guarding the centres of major tourist cities aren’t a great calling card for a country at the height of the tourist season.”

As if to prove his point, one 70-year-old British visitor to Rome said: “You might expect this in a Central African dictatorship after a coup, not in a major EU capital that is one of the Western world’s most visited cities. It’s absolutely ridiculous and if anything makes me feel more uneasy, not more reassured.”

Mr Berlusconi’s administration has begun a strict crackdown on illegal immigrants, with laws allowing local authorities to seize flats they rent and letting judges hand them longer prison sentences if they are convicted of crimes.

The government’s hardline approach has drawn flak from organisations as varied as civil rights campaigners, EU organisations and the Vatican.

Tensions were running high at one asylum-seekers’ holding centre in southern Italy now being overseen by armed forces. Inmates staged a protest in front of newspaper and TV cameras demanding UN action over their plight.

However, the Government is in no mood to back down over the troop deployment. Despite the units having no arrest powers, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni and Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa insisted their presence would deter offenders. City chiefs in Milan and Bari have also come out strongly in support.