Wildlife row as Mafia convicts migrate

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SEVERAL thousand inhabitants of the little Sardinian town of Porto Torres (population 22,000) staged a one-day strike yesterday and demonstrated in front of the town hall to protest at the arrival of 140 dangerous Mafia criminals on the nearby prison island of Asinara.

For Asinara, inaccessible to the public and uninhabited except for the penal colony, is a nature paradise, the home of numerous rare and endangered species. 'Ours is a severely depressed area with high unemployment,' said Mayor Giacomo Rum who had called the strike. 'We had been preparing to reverse our fortunes by turning Asinara into a regional nature park and develop high-quality, ecological tourism.'

Then there was the danger that the Mafia element might prove contagious in this little port. 'The inmates' relatives have a right to visit them,' Mr Rum said. 'They won't be able to make the journey from Sicily or Calabria and back in a day, so they will have to stop over here. This is a clean, healthy society, we don't want them here. There is great indignation.'

Apart from the 365 prison inmates, their guards and some of the guards' families, the main inhabitants of the 52 sq km (20 sq miles) island are wild sheep, a race of albino donkeys and endangered sea birds such as Audouin gulls, blue rock thrushes, shags, Bonelli's eagles and Manx shearwaters.

Porto Torres' indignation is not exactly shared by the Italian branch of the World Wildlife Fund. 'As long as the mafiosi are there, there will be no tourists and no building speculation and the wildlife will remain safe,' said a spokesman.

Mr Rum hotly disputes that their plans for the park would involve building or endanger the wildlife - and points out that the project is laid down in a law passed recently by the Italian parliament. If the mafiosi are not sent packing, he said, 'we will come to Rome and stage a sit-in in front of the Quirinale (the presidential palace) until we get a meeting with the President. The government must respect its own laws.'

But law or no law, the government, in its struggle to beat the ever-more ruthless and powerful Mafia, is spending around pounds 35m on refurbishing the high-security wings of Asinara and Pianosa, another island penal colony near Elba, and build accommodation for the troops and extra warders needed to watch them.

A total of 350 of Italy's most dangerous Mafia bosses and killers will be shut up in the ancient buildings, forbidden, unlike the non-Mafia inmates, to work on the prison farms and with little hope of escape. Ships and aircraft are not allowed near the islands and visitors must have special permits from the Justice Mnistry.