I have the right to defend myself, says pistol-packing Italian mayor

The mayor of a southern Italian city has caused a storm by turning up to political rallies with a gun tucked into his belt.

Taranto's pistol-packing first citizen, Ippazio Stefano, claimed he carried the revolver after receiving death threats during recent elections. He continued campaigning despite the intimidation, and went on to be re-elected with 70 per cent of the vote. He said, however, he felt more secure when he was armed.

Critics said the images reinforced prejudices over Italy's far south being a mafia-dominated "Wild West". Other observers noted it accentuated the febrile political atmosphere in all of Italy, with fears that anarchists and even Red Brigades sympathisers are planning to exploit the harsh economic conditions and launch attacks on public figures.

Yesterday, with local papers gleefully printing pictures of the mayor with the gun in his belt, the pacifist president of the Puglia region, Nichi Vendola, led the calls for Mr Stefano, a pediatrician by training, to put his weapon away. "You're not the sheriff," said Mr Vendola. "It's time to lay down that stupid object." He went on to sympathise with Mr Stefano, however. "I think I can understand how you felt and why you've acted that way, of course it's not easy to live with intimidation and threats."

But Mr Vendola, who likes to write poetry, tried to reassure his fellow left-winger in a typically florid public letter that he could feel "fully protected only by our affection and our esteem". Facebook pages filled with insults and indignation aimed at the mayor, with most commentators accusing the first citizen of setting a bad example.

Comparisons were inevitably made between Mr Stefano and a previous Taranto mayor and MP, the notorious Giancarlo Cito, a politician with neo-fascist links and convictions for Mafia associations, who is currently in prison. The two men have little in common, except for appearing with arms in public.

"You can't make comparisons between me and Cito," said Mr Stefano. "I've never hurt anyone. But having given up my armed escort, can't I have the right to defend myself?"

But yesterday there were indications from the mayor that he would lay down his weapon. "I've told him [Mr Vendola] that I'll agree to his request," he told journalists.