Italian football's 'ultras' in knife attack on English

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Thirteen Middlesbrough fans were taken to hospital, some with stab wounds, after a masked gang of Rome's infamous "ultras" ­ hyper-violent football hooligans ­ attacked them in the run-up to last night's Uefa Cup tie.

In a commando-like operation they threw deafening flash flares into a popular Roman pub and then went in, according to witnesses, with knives, bicycle chains and hammers. British women and children among family groups in town for the game ran screaming across the cobbles of a piazza as what a Cleveland policeman called "an apparently organised gang of Italian thugs" set about slashing and battering the foreign visitors.

It was around 11pm on Tuesday and the Middlesbrough fans were drinking and socialising in one of Rome's most popular piazzas when they heard a loud bang, "like a bomb or a flash flare". Mike Calvert, 21, a chemical technician from Warrington, said some of the Italians were wielding bicycle chains and hammers. "I saw lots of Middlesbrough fans with blood over their faces," he said. A spokes-man at the British embassy said: " It was quite clearly the Romans who attacked. The fact that four Roman fans were arrested but no British ones seems to bear that out."

"It was the Italians who were attacking," echoed a young English visitor, sipping a cocktail of Red Bull and grappa out of a plastic cup on the same piazza before the game yesterday. "All the violent Boro fans are already barred. We're the ordinary fans, the Ra-ras..."

Campo de' fiori, one of the city's prettiest and most popular public spaces, has a rather split personality. In the mornings it is taken over by a fruit and vegetable market. Towards dusk its cobbles and picturesque stuccoed buildings are the backdrop for the gentle Roman passeggiata (stroll) and elegant aperitifs at the many pavement cafes.

But as the respectable folk head for home, it turns into a cross between Leicester Square and Camden High Street, chock full of young drinkers ready to booze all night. The statue of Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake by the Inquisition for his dangerous ideas, looms over a vast Bacchanalia. Last summer some revellers got back at locals trying to shut them up by carrying portable loudhailers in preference to cell phones. Sometimes anarchic mass football games break out.

The Middlesbrough fans, in town one day ahead of their Uefa Cup draw with Roma, made a beeline for the campo. By 11pm, according to fans, there were hundreds of them in the piazza, chanting and singing, well oiled and rowdy but not violent.

"It was great craic," said one, "fans were jumping in the fountains, having a great time." Many were in or outside a pub called The Drunken Ship. It is not one of the campo's classiest spots. " Tonight!" screams a notice in the window, "Dare 2 Bare! Ladies!"

This was the bar where the trouble suddenly erupted, targeted, according to an officer of Cleveland Police, in town for the game, by "an apparently organised gang of Italian thugs, their faces covered by masks and bandannas. A lighted flare was thrown into the bar and other flares set off in the square."

Superintendent Steve Swales said: "There was a fight with tables, chairs and bottles being thrown. Police were called to the scene and they broke up the fighting with their batons."

British fans accused the Roman police of using disproportionate force. " They had visors and batons and they went at the Boro fans brutally, laying about them," said one.

Mike Calvert added: "We are not in a vengeful mood ­ more like a fearful mood."

Last night though they could celebrate. Their team won.