Simmering racial tensions in southern Italy have exploded into violence, with hundreds of African immigrants rioting in the Calabrian town of Rosarno.
In one of the worst-ever incidents of racial unrest in Italy, the violence broke out on Thursday evening after white youths in a car fired air rifles at a group of immigrants returning from working on farms.
Two immigrants were slightly injured by the gunfire. "Those guys were firing at us as if it was a fairground," a Moroccan identified as Kamal told La Repubblica newspaper. "They were laughing, I was screaming, other cars were passing by but nobody stopped."
In a furious reaction, immigrant farm labourers fought pitched battles with police that lasted into the early hours. Dozens of cars were smashed with bricks and bars and the driver and passengers in one vehicle injured. About 15 people were arrested and 18 policemen and 19 immigrants injured, two of the immigrants seriously.
Yesterday, more than 2,000 Africans massed in the town centre to demonstrate against the shootings and their living and working conditions. Some chanted "we are not animals" and others carried placards saying: "Italians here are racist."
This resulted in further clashes with police officers and locals, some of whom fired weapons into the air as the tension continued to escalate. Sporadic acts of vandalism continued and schools remained closed.
By yesterday lunchtime around 100 local people were occupying the council building demanding that the police commissioner, Domenico Bagnato, clear the immigrants out of the town.
Domenico Ventre, the former head of civil protection on Rosarno's council, condemned the rioting. "In Rosarno the immigrants are helped, and their reaction to this isolated episode on Thursday is disproportionate," he said. "We cannot accept that they devastate our town and cause fear among the citizens."
Although the riots were sparked by the two immigrants being shot and slightly wounded, commentators said the unprovoked attack had merely brought simmering resentment to the surface.
The illegal immigrant labourers work and live in miserable conditions – usually in barracks with no electricity or running water. Rosarno's priest, Don Carmelo Ascone, yesterday described their living conditions as like "something from Dante's Inferno". According to the CGIL public sector union, about 26,400 immigrants were employed in Calabria's agriculture sector in 2007; fewer than 7,000 of them had permits to be in Italy.
The farms they work on pay money to the region's 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate, or in many cases are in its pocket. And despite earning just £18 for punishing nine-hour days, the workers are usually forced to hand over a quarter of what they earn to local mobsters.
The clashes come after years of growing tension between immigrants, many of whom arrive illegally, and a nation which has flipped from an attitude of easy-going welcome to resentment and rejection. The Northern League, a coalition ally of Silvio Berlusconi, has enjoyed a boom in the polls thanks to its hard line on immigration, and yesterday interior minister, Roberto Maroni, a leader of the League, blamed lax immigration policies for the trouble. "In recent years illegal immigration has been tolerated, which has increased criminality and added to the general civil decay," he said.
But opposition leader Pierluigi Bersani said many of the immigrants had been brought into the country by criminals to be exploited as virtual slave labour. "Maroni is passing the buck," he said. "We have to go to the roots of the problem: Mafia, exploitation, xenophobia and racism."
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