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Italian police began a nationwide round-up of nearly 400 illegal immigrants from the Balkans and North Africa yesterday in the midst of a series of arson attacks on Roma gypsy camps in the suburbs of Naples.
The first step in a drive on crime promised by the new centre-right government of Silvio Berlusconi targeted temporary encampments on the outskirts of cities from Naples to northern Italy. Some 118 people held in the operation were ordered to be expelled immediately for offences ranging from drug dealing and robbery to prostitution.
But in Naples local people have anticipated the new policy, taking the law into their own hands.
This week’s assaults on Roma shanty towns by scores of youths on scooters and motorbikes wielding iron bars and throwing Molotov cocktails were sparked off by the capture of a 17-year-old Roma girl who last weekend entered a flat in Ponticelli and tried to steal a 6-year-old girl. Chased by the mother and neighbours, she had to be rescued by police from being lynched.
The city erupted in fury, with local women leading the marches on the Roma camps to the chant of “Fuori, fuori [Out, out]”. Night after night young men—allegedly acting on the orders of powerful local clans of the Camorra, the Naples Mafia—have set the sites ablaze, blocking attempts by the fire brigade to put out the fires, with exploding gas canisters completing the destruction. The women jeered at the firemen, shouting, “You put these fires out, we start them again”.
Plumes of smoke were still rising yesterday from the smouldering, blackened ruins of a Roma gypsy camp attacked and burnt to the ground by local vigilantes in Ponticelli, a rundown industrial suburb in the east of Naples in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.
The charred remains of the makeshift wooden shacks at the site on Via Malibran crunch underfoot. The only sign of life is dogs scavenging through the neighbouring mountain of uncollected, rotting rubbish.
There are similar scenes of devastation at camps nearby, including one in the incongruously named Via Virginia Woolf. At one squalid “nomad camp” beneath a motorway flyover, intact but deserted, a policeman guarding the site said that the inhabitants had fled during the night to avoid being attacked.
The signs of hasty panic were everywhere, with doors to the shacks left open and the ground strewn with clothing, shoes, bicycles, plastic bottles, pots and pans and children’s toys.
Hundreds of Roma families have fled for their lives with their belongings piled on to small pick-up trucks or handcarts. Some have been taken under police protection to a former school used to house illegal immigrants in a northern Naples suburb. Others have found refuge at Roma camps elsewhere in the Campania region, while a few have been taken in by Naples residents shocked at this outbreak of “xenophobia”.
The Naples arson attacks, however, are the result of long-festering anger throughout Italy over rising crime levels and urban degradation, much of it blamed on Roma gypsies and the estimated half a million Romanians who have emigrated to Italy since Romania joined the European Union.
According to the Roma rights group, Opera Nomadi, there are 2,500 Roma in Naples, 1,000 from Romania and 1,500 from the Balkans. A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) drew parallels with Roma people forced to flee from the Balkans, saying: “We never thought we’d see such images in Italy.”
In Rome, where Gianni Alemanno, the new right-wing mayor, has vowed to dismantle “nomad camps” to reduce street crime, police raided a Roma camp, loading the inhabitants on to buses and taking them to detention centres. Mr Alemanno has promised to deport 20,000 illegal immigrants.
Today the Berlusconi Cabinet will approve an emergency “security package” drawn up by Robert Maroni, the new Interior Minister and deputy leader of the anti immigrant Northern League. It includes the dismantling of Roma camps, the appointment of “special commissioners” to deal with “the Roma problem” in Rome and Milan, the tightening of border controls and the speeded-up deportation of immigrants who cannot show they have a job or an “adequate” income. Mr Maroni also wants to make illegal immigration a criminal offence.
Mr Berlusconi vowed during last month’s election campaign to curb illegal immigrants, describing them as an “army of evil”. Mr Berlusconi has also pledged to hold a Cabinet meeting in Naples next Wednesday to resolve the continuing rubbish crisis amid fears of an epidemic as warmer weather arrives.
Yesterday Flora Martinelli, the mother who caught the Roma teenager trying to steal her baby at Ponticelli, said she was “very sorry for what has happened. I didn’t think it would come to this”.
But she said, “We have absolutely had it with the Roma, they have to go.” At one of the few remaining nomad camps, terrified Roma people were reluctant to speak. “We are not all criminals” insisted one thirty-year-old man. But at the market opposite the burnt-out Via Malibran camp, local people were unrepentant. “The gypsies don’t work, they don’t wash, and they steal,” said one youth. “This is our version of ethnic cleansing.”
Last year the centre-left government of Romano Prodi expelled over 200 Romanians with criminal records after a Romanian was accused of murdering an Italian woman at a Rome railway station. However, the centre-right swept to power in elections last month, arguing that much tougher measures were needed