ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s interior minister, under fire over the worst riots in Rome for years, said on Tuesday the country risked a “hot autumn” of urban terrorism and promised tough new measures to boost police powers against violent protests.
In a report to the upper house of parliament, Roberto Maroni denied accusations he had failed to take adequate measures to prevent Saturday’s riots and said the real problem was a lack of legal powers and resources for the police.
He said the riots, in which cars and police vehicles were torched, windows smashed and at least one building set on fire, had caused five million euros (4.4 million pounds) of damage.
The disorder has led to much national handwringing over why Italy was the only country where a global “day of rage” against the financial system turned violent.
Maroni announced 60 million euros of additional funds would be spent before the end of the year to boost police resources.
“A public order emergency was evident on Saturday which I have defined as a sort of urban terrorism,” Maroni said.
“After the events of Rome it is easy to predict that the effort to guarantee public order in our cities will increase in what looks like a new hot autumn,” he added.
Maroni said at the height of the violence in the heart of Rome, near the ancient Roman Colosseum, 3,000 rioters were fighting a similar number of police. Other estimates have put the number of rioters at less than 1,000.
The rioters came from all over Italy and were primarily members of an “insurrectionist-anarchist” movement, but also included violent football supporters known as “ultras”, skinheads and other extreme groups.
Maroni promised new powers allowing police to arrest people suspected of planning violence at a protest and the banning of those with previous public order convictions.
The proposals are a reaction to national shock that a comparatively small number of rioters were able to hijack a demonstration by 80,000 peaceful protesters against Italy’s economic crisis, despite warnings of violence well in advance.
The highly organised, masked and helmeted rioters overwhelmed and outflanked police. Maroni said security forces had been unable to charge rioters until late in the day because they had skilfully mixed in with peaceful demonstrators.
Members of the peaceful demonstration told a radio phone-in programme on Tuesday that the police seemed uncertain how to react even when protesters grabbed rioters and tried to hand them over. Only 12 people were arrested during the riots.
Police unions, who have fiercely criticised the government, saying cost-cutting has reduced both their income and resources, protested outside parliament ahead of Maroni’s speech.
Policemen posting comments on an internet forum complained bitterly about low wages and said they were reluctant to charge rioters for of fear of being charged with excessive force, as they were a decade ago when a protester was killed during riots around a G-8 meeting in Genoa.
Maroni also promised better legal protection for police.
The riots have rapidly turned into a political dispute with the fragile centre-right coalition of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi accusing the left of fomenting discontent and opposition politicians charging that Maroni underestimated the potential for violence despite secret service warnings.
Many of the rioters are thought to have honed their techniques during a series of recent protests in northwestern Italy against a high speed rail link to France. More violence is feared during protests there next weekend.
The Rome demonstration was the biggest in a weekend of global protests against the world financial system. It was fuelled by resentment and despair at the government’s failure to produce viable plans to restore growth to an economy at a virtual standstill for more than a decade.
This mood has been aggravated by a 60 billion euro austerity plan including increases in taxes and the cost of healthcare. Italy’s youth unemployment, at 28 percent, is one of the highest in the euro zone.