Italian tolerance goes up in smoke as Gypsy camp is burnt to ground

In cruel and unusual concert, Italy's new government, its police and paramilitary carabinieri, and even its gangsters, have turned their joint might against the nation's enemy number one: the Gypsies.

Yesterday Pope Benedict XVI and a small number of left-wingers raised lonely voices in central Naples against the national hardening of hearts towards Europe's perennial outsiders. To little avail: the Pope's appeal for a spirit of welcome and acceptance was met with a hail of angry rejection in blogged comments on news websites.

But what will remain scorched in the nation's memory – as a mark of shame, or a beacon pointing the way forward, depending on how you see it – are the flaming structures of the Gypsy camp burnt in the Ponticelli district of Naples on Wednesday.

Residents of the former communist stronghold on the northern outskirts of Naples have been raising hell about the camp since Saturday, when a woman claimed a Gypsy girl had entered her flat and tried to steal her baby.

The first Molotov cocktails descended on the improvised huts and cabins on Tuesday evening, after which the 800-odd inhabitants began moving out of the area in groups. On Wednesday the fire-raisers, said to belong to the Camorra, the Neapolitan equivalent of the Mafia, burnt the camp in earnest, watched by applauding local people and unchallenged by the police. When firefighters showed up to douse the blaze, local people taunted and whistled at them. The last Roma moved out under police protection.

Only then did local politicians shed a few crocodile tears: Antonio Bassolino, governor of the Campania region, declaring: "We must stop with the greatest determination these disturbing episodes against the Roma." Rosa Russo Iervolino, the Mayor of Naples, chimed in: "It is unthinkable that anyone could imagine that I could justify reprisals against the Roma."

But the first act of ethnic cleansing in the new Italy passed off with little fuss. Flora Martinelli, the woman who reported the alleged kidnap attempt on her baby, said: "I'm very sorry for what's happening, I didn't want it to come to this. But the Gypsies had to go."

Roma have been living in Italy for seven centuries, and 70,000 of the 160,000-strong population have Italian citizenship. They amount to less than 0.3 per cent of the population, one of the lowest proportions in Europe. But their poverty and resistance to integration have made them far more conspicuous than other communities. And the influx of thousands more from Romania in the past year has confirmed the view of many Italians that the Gypsies and their eyesore encampments are the source of all their problems.

The forces of law and order took up the struggle yesterday. In Rome, some 50 Roma without identification and living in the city's biggest Gypsy camp were arrested as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration which resulted in more than 400 arrests nationwide.

Meanwhile, the government announced that its new diktat on security is almost ready and will be approved at its first cabinet meeting in Naples, as announced by Mr Berlusconi, to symbolise his determination to crack the city's chronic refuse problem.

The "decree law", which will have immediate effect, is expected to make illegal immigration a criminal offence, punishable by up to four years in prison. The discussion of the draft of the law and the announcement that there will be no more amnesties have thrown the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who work informally as nurses and old people's companions into a panic. Now the government is trying to fine tune the law so it only applies to criminally inclined clandestini – and Gypsies.

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