Italy boosts security, raps attacks on tax officials

ROME Thu May 17, 2012 7:26am EDT

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ROME (Reuters) - Italy acted on Thursday to step up security against a resurgence of politically inspired violence driven by its economic crisis and Prime Minister Mario Monti voiced "unconditional support" to tax officials who have come under repeated attack.

The measures underscore the growing attention Italian authorities are paying to the threat of violence, either from individuals struggling to make ends meet or from radical groups seeking to exploit a spreading mood of discontent.

Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri convened a national security committee to address improved protection of sensitive targets after an attack on a senior nuclear industry executive last week.

Security is expected to be reinforced at 14,000 locations including offices of Finmeccanica, parent company of Ansaldo Nucleare, whose chief executive was shot in the leg in an attack claimed by an anarchist group.

The plan calls for the army to provide support for police forces as well as increased intelligence efforts "to neutralize risks of possible subversive actions which could fuel moments of tension," the ministry said in a statement.

Italy has a long experience of political violence, notably during the "Years of Lead" in the 1970s when dozens of officials and business leaders were killed by the far-left Red Brigades.

Although the climate is nothing like as tense as it was in those years, rising unemployment, severe recession and austerity measures imposed to fight the crisis have fed a bitter mood, reflected in a series of attacks on tax agency Equitalia.

In a statement following a visit to Equitalia offices in Rome, Monti expressed "the unconditional support of the government and myself in the face of numerous and frequently repeated acts of intimidation and aggression in recent days which must be condemned with great firmness".

HOSTILITY

The hostility directed at Equitalia, which collects fines and taxes and which is widely criticized in Italy for heavy handed methods, has increased sharply as businesses already struggling to raise bank loans have been hit by big tax bills.

Equitalia officials have been assaulted and insulted repeatedly in recent weeks, amid accusations they have been partly responsible for a wave of suicides by small business owners in financial difficulty.

Italy has one of the heaviest overall tax burdens in the developed world, behind only Belgium, Sweden and Denmark in the 34-member OECD and, at the same time, struggles with chronic and widespread tax evasion that Monti has promised to crack down on.

"If everyone paid what they should, we would all pay less and we would have better public services," he said.

However, with public confidence in the political system fading in the face of repeated financial scandals involving all the main parties to some degree or other, it has been a battle to convince taxpayers of the need for shared sacrifice.

Most of the protests have come from individuals entirely unconnected with anarchist or other violent leftist groups but there have been signs that such groups may intend to use the crisis to burst back onto the scene.

In a letter to the Calabria Ora newspaper on Wednesday, the Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI), which claimed responsibility for the Ansaldo shooting, also threatened Monti himself and offices of Equitalia.

Last week, several leaflets bearing the Red Brigades' five-pointed star logo were plastered on tax agency offices and other official buildings.

On the southern island of Sicily on Thursday, about 200 former Fiat and auto sector workers occupied a train station near Palermo, the latest protest against increasing unemployment and hardship in Italy, union sources said.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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