Italian businessmen drop pants in tax protest

ROME Tue Jun 4, 2013 6:00pm BST

Italian businessmen pose for photographers in their shirts and underwear while carrying signs that read ''You are killing thousands of jobs,'' during a protest demanding the abolition of tax collection agency Equitalia, outside the parliament in Rome June 4, 2013. EUTERS/Remo Casilli

Italian businessmen pose for photographers in their shirts and underwear while carrying signs that read ''You are killing thousands of jobs,'' during a protest demanding the abolition of tax collection agency Equitalia, outside the parliament in Rome June 4, 2013. EUTERS/Remo Casilli

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ROME (Reuters) - Five Italian businessmen stripped off their trousers and protested outside parliament on Tuesday, demanding the abolition of a tax collection agency they blame for the suicides of scores of their peers.

The men posed for the cameras in their shirts and underwear, carrying signs that read "You are killing thousands of jobs".

Their business lobby, Cobas Imprese, is one of two groups demanding a referendum to abolish Equitalia, an agency that collects back-taxes and fines. They accuse it of exacerbating the economic crisis by hounding the indebted owners of failing businesses.

"In the past 18 months, 162 businessmen have committed suicide because they have ended up in the teeth of this agency," Giuseppe Graziani, president of Cobas Imprese, told reporters.

Italy's economy, the euro zone's third biggest, is mired in a recession that has been dragging on since mid-2011, driving up unemployment and forcing the closure of thousands of companies.

No political parties have yet joined the referendum campaign, Graziani said, although former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose party belongs to the left-right coalition led by Enrico Letta, has previously called for the agency to be closed.

Equitalia was the target of firebomb attacks last year, and an anarchist group sent a letter bomb at the end of 2011 that wounded one of the agency's directors.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer, Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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