Prodi under pressure as army moves in to clear Naples trash

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The Independent Online

Soldiers were deployed to clear piles of rubbish outside schools in the Naples area yesterday as protests flared over months of failure to collect rotting refuse. Italian Army engineering units were called in to carry out the refuse clearance in Caserta on the outskirts of the chaotic city in the south of the country so pupils could resume classes. "The schools must reopen," said the Italian prime minister, Romano Prodi.

The EU Environment Commissioner last week warned Rome that Brussels would impose sanctions on Italy if the Government does not resolve the crisis.

Three people were injured at the weekend as riot police clashed with demonstrators opposed to the reopening of a big municipal rubbish dump in the district of Pianura. The protesters say the dump will damage the ecological balance in the district and have called for the resignation of Antonio Bassolino, the president of the regional government, and Rosa Iervolino, the Naples mayor.

Mr Bassolino refused to contemplate quitting, saying popular disgruntlement was being manipulated by opportunists in the right-wing opposition.

"Political careers and electoral fortunes have been built over the years on opposition to the waste dumps," he said. "I was always at my post, ready for dialogue with citizens and in favour of compensation for local people."

Miss Iervolino said Mr Prodi had long been aware of the rubbish crisis in Naples but had failed to act.

Protesters blocked the main railway line from Naples to Rome for about an hour with a sit-in at the station of Pozzuoli, on the outskirts of Naples. Other demonstrators, manning barricades at Pianura, were charged by police wielding truncheons. Police used a bulldozer to remove trees blocking the road to the dump. One protester who tried to climb on the bulldozer was beaten back with truncheon blows.

Police sources said drivers of 30 lorries that were due to arrive at the dump yesterday carrying a first cargo of refuse turned back in the face of the protests.

Rubbish bins were overturned in the city centre and dragged into the middle of the streets and main roads where four buses were torched late last Friday.

The crisis is being seen as a litmus test of the chances of survival for Mr Prodi's fragile centre-left coalition government.

Luca di Montezemolo, the head of the employers' federation, Confindustria, joined in the chorus of disapproval over the stand-off. "This is a very ugly and unacceptable degradation of the image of our country in the world," he said. Mr Prodi met the Interior Minister, Giuliano Amato, and other key ministers last night to decide a plan of action aimed at tackling the chronic refuse problem.

An estimated 100,000 tonnes of rotting refuse has accumulated in Naples, Caserta and other areas of the Campania region.

Problems with rubblish collection have plagued Naples and the Campania region for about 15 years. Waste collection and disposal is in the grip of the local mafia, the Camorra, which has sabotaged efforts to build new dumps and incinerators, allegedly with the complicity of officials.