Reuters – 2007-02-17 23:04:18
Tens of Thousands Protest US Base Plan
VICENZA (February 17, 2007) — Tens of thousands of people travelled to the northeastern Italian city of Vicenza to take part in a major protest against the planned expansion of a US military base, a divisive issue for the centre-left Government.
“We were 10 to a compartment,” said Gino Del Ferraro, a 23-year-old physics student who arrived on a train chartered by the Refoundation Communist party. Mr Ferraro paid 10 euros ($16.70) for a round trip overnight train ride from Rome.
The Refoundation Communist Party is a component of Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s coalition fiercely opposed to the US base plan, along with a smaller communist party and the Greens.
Mr Prodi last month decided not to renege on a pledge by his staunchly pro-US conservative predecessor Silvio Berlusconi to allow the expansion of the base in Vicenza, a city of 100,000 people known as the home of Palladian architecture.
The US 173rd Airborne Brigade is currently spread across two sites in Germany and Camp Ederle, on the east side of Vicenza, and the US wants to consolidate the Brigade in Vicenza.
The US embassy has put out a travel advisory urging US nationals to stay away from Vicenza over the weekend, predicting a turnout of some 70,000.
The Italian press predicted a turnout of up to 80,000, with authorities warning of violence fomented by “extremists,” while organizers scoff at the idea. “The mass media are calling us extremists,” boomed Oscar Mancini at a pre-march rally on Friday. “They haven’t understood anything about Vicenza.”
In December, he recalled, more than 20,000 people held a peaceful protest here against the base expansion. “Tomorrow it will be the same,” said Mr Mancini, the Vicenza regional representative for Italy’s largest labour union, the left-wing CGIL.
Mr Prodi urged a peaceful protest: “Demonstrations are the salt of democracy, but they should be peaceful, serene and without violence.”
The air space above the city was closed ahead of the march and police helicopters could be heard overhead while helmeted police could be seen dotted around the city.
Vicenza’s former mayor Achille Variati said the protests were also misconstrued as anti-American. “It’s about us against the city administration,” he said. “It would be a big error to be anti-American.”
Italian-US Relations Hit New Low after Protests
Malcolm Moore / Reuters
ROME (February 18, 2007) — Italian pacifists and Left-wingers staged a 50,000-strong protest yesterday against the presence of a new large-scale US air force base.
A former civilian airport in the northern city of Vicenza has been earmarked, with the base replacing two in Germany and acting as a departure point for US tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The £500 million American plan to convert the Dal Molin airport, one and a half miles from the city centre, has come under fire from Italians who have long been opposed to America’s wars.
The mass demonstration in Vicenza follows a series of diplomatic spats which have plunged relations between Italy and America to a new low.
On Friday, an Italian court ordered 26 CIA agents to stand trial for the “rendition” of a Muslim cleric allegedly kidnapped in Milan. Earlier this month, another judge ruled that Mario Lozano, a US marine, face trial for the fatal shooting of Nicola Calipari, an Italian spy.
The US ambassador to Italy, Ronald Spogli, insisted that the rapport between the countries remained “perfect, excellent”, despite being heckled himself by a mob on a recent visit to Vicenza.
Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister, has been criticised by some in his own party for endorsing the building of the base – a deal brokered by his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch ally of President Bush.
Mr Prodi said the demonstration in Vicenza was against Italian interests.
Opponents say that the base could be used as a staging post by the US military to launch assaults against perceived Islamist threats in the Middle East. This, in turn, could lead to retaliatory attacks by extremists against Italians at home and abroad.
More than 1,300 police were drafted in from outside Vicenza for yesterday’s protest. The US embassy in Rome warned Americans to stay away.
The city was made a world heritage site by Unesco in 1994 because of its wealth of buildings by Andrea Palladio, the 16th-century architect who has Prince Charles among his admirers. The base will be less than a mile from Palladio’s church in the Piazza dei Signori.
“Are they joking about building a base this size in a busy city?” asked Cinzia Bottene, a march organiser.
The US plans to build five new barracks at Dal Molin, with a capacity of 1,300 soldiers each. Around 1,800 troops are expected to move from Germany to join the 2,700 currently stationed in Vicenza. The plan is to reduce the 20 bases in Europe to just eight.
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