Racism darkens Rome's riviera

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If the drunken driver who ran over and killed Sara Folino near her home on the Lazio coast three days after Christmas had been white, it would have been dismissed as a tragic accident.

The fact that he was a North African has stirred up racial tension in the crumbling seaside resorts south of Rome where disenfranchised Italians struggle alongside the immigrant community to scrape a living in an area hard hit by recession and years of neglect.

Three days after Sara's death, a paunchy 50-year-old Italian drove his Fiat Panda up to a caravan park housing two or three dozen Moroccans and fired his shotgun at the first one he saw. Salah el-Bhit, 27, escaped with his life, but spent days in hospital recovering from wounds to his shoulder and hand.

Another Moroccan came forward earlier this week saying he had beaten up by skinheads in Latina, an industrial town some 20 miles further to the south.

The immigrant community has taken fright. Moroccans used to congregate in the squares of towns like Torvaianica, where Sara Folino was killed. Now they do not dare leave their trailer homes. Some have gone to Rome, while others have decided to leave.

Torvaianica's weekly market is usually well populated with North Africans selling spices, household appliances and cheap clothes, but on Tuesday not one of the usual stallholders turned up. Yesterday, there were only Italian faces to be seen. Meanwhile,

plainclothes policemen have been out in force, setting up roadblocks and searching for arms.

Torvaianica was once a playground for film stars with tennis courts, country club beach villas and a glittering restaurant, the Corsetti. Now, half-built hotels languish by the roadside. The events of the past few days have shocked Italy, a country whereracial hatred is relatively uncommon and most foreigners find work and a cordial welcome. Mario Folino, the father of the dead student, has been conciliatory towards his daughter's attackers. But recession and unemployment have hit the Lazio coast hard,creating resentful competition between local and foreign communities.

Gianfranco Fini's reformed neo-Fascist party, the National Alliance, has a wide following with its call to limit numbers of foreigners and expel them if necessary. The thuggish violence of the past days could prove embarrassing for Mr Fini if his supporters appear to be condoning it.

The immigration minister, the National Alliance's Maurizio Gasparri, made a gaffe when he blamed President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro for failing to appoint a special national commissioner for immigration. Mr Gasparri was forced to back down when it turned outhis nomination for the post had never reached the presidential palace, but was somewhere in his own ministry.