NAPLES A government-appointed 'trash tsar' took charge of a waste crisis in Naples on Wednesday after residents sealed off a suburb with barricades to stop it becoming a dumping ground for mountains of garbage.
Images of the historic port city wallowing in its own filth have shocked Italians and embarrassed the ruling centre left coalition of Prime Minister Romano Prodi, which also holds office at the local and regional level in Naples.
On Tuesday, Prodi gave former national police chief Gianni De Gennaro four months to find a solution to Naples' waste crisis after almost every waste dump in the southern city was declared full at the end of last year.
Naples has been in an official 'state of emergency' since 1994 when the first trash tsar was appointed to clean up waste disposal, which is controlled by the local mafia, the Camorra.
Fourteen years and 2 billion euros ($2.94 billion) of public money later, the city is still searching for a solution. A huge incinerator supposed to open at the end of 2007 may not come on line until 2009.
Authorities want to reopen a dump in the suburb of Pianura, which has been closed for 11 years, to take the estimated 110,000 tons of garbage rotting in the streets and in the surrounding region.
But locals declared the suburb a no-go area for garbage trucks and it has been blocked to traffic since Saturday.
The area looks like a war zone, with improvised barriers manned during the day by peaceful locals and at night by menacing gangs of youths who regularly clash with police, two of whom were injured on Tuesday evening.
"It's worse than Kabul," Gianfranco Fini, leader of the right-wing National Alliance party, said on a visit to Naples on Tuesday when residents applauded his arrival.
"I have a sense of sickness and feel great solidarity with Neapolitans."
A few trucks were allowed into the suburb on Wednesday to deliver food to shops. A rally was due to take place in the city centre at 5 p.m. (11:00 a.m. EST).
Prodi's office has hinted the government may back down from its initial insistence that the dump must reopen.
The final decision will rest with De Gennaro who arrived in Naples on Wednesday. He will have to confront both residents and local officials who are blamed for ineffectiveness, corruption and, in some cases, links to gangland criminals who make fortunes out of waste transport and illegal disposal.
Prodi said a short-term solution would be to truck Naples' waste to other parts of the country, a policy which would be resented by some in the rich north. Long-term, the region will have three incinerators, he said.
Illegal dumping and burning is blamed for poisoning the soil, water and air of large zones around the base of Mount Vesuvius and causing high instances of some forms of cancer.
(editing by Robert Woodward)