Italy to send in troops to tackle Sardinian 'terror' fires

Italy is sending soldiers to help quell fires that have raged for weeks on Sardinia's Costa Smeralda, the heart of the island's luxury tourist industry.

A company of the Brigata Sassari, the regiment based in Sardinia, recently returned from Iraq, is to be mobilised to deal with a menace that has driven tourists into the sea to be rescued by the Italian navy.

The fires, which have been started by what the Interior Minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, called "eco-terrorists", have repeatedly come within sight of Villa Certosa, the palatial holiday home of the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Three bomb alerts in two days this week on the island - all of which turned out to be hoaxes - have also heightened tension and raised fears that both the fires and the hoaxes are part of a larger campaign to drive tourism, the mainstay of Sardinia's economy, out of the island.

The hoaxes were more than mere nuisance calls: on Wednesday morning, police found a large timer inside a bag abandoned in the town of Porto Cervo, connected not to a bomb but a block of plaster. Inside the bag was also found a leaflet from an ultra-left-wing group called Proletarian Nuclei for Communism, which has claimed responsibility for several attacks on the island in recent months.

The leaflet declared the group's intention to "liberate Sardinia from [the rich]". A state prosecutor told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that the evidence pointed to "a subversive intention to punish tourism by seizing Costa Smeralda, which is its symbol.

"By increasing the number of false bomb alerts, they can create a real wave of alarmism," the prosecutor said.

Forests have been going up in flames all over Italy in record numbers this summer, from Friuli in the north-east to the far south-west of Sicily, causing twice the damage as last year. Nearly 8,000 fires have broken out, compared to 4,141 last year, and they have consumed 24,000 hectares of woodland and 34,000 hectares of non-wooded land.

Mr Pisanu has claimed that many of the fires were the work of Mafia gangs. Wooded land is barred from development, so the strategy of the gangs is to burn the trees down then squat on the land and develop it illegally. Endorsing this theory, the National Anti-Mafia prosecutor, Pier Luigi Vigna, said this week that he was setting up a working group to focus on organised crime in the agricultural sector. "It's a phenomenon that's spreading," he said.

He also confirmed the theory that arsonists in Sardinia were targeting tourism. "It's a form of protest against the ostentatious luxury of the tourists with villas in the woods; it's a certain rebellion," he said.

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