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Immigrants riot in Italy amid racial unrest

ROSARNO, Italy (Reuters) - Thousands of immigrants protested against racism in a southern Italian town on Friday, after a night of rioting that was sparked by an attack on African farm workers by a gang of white youths.

In one of Italy’s worst episodes of racial unrest in years, dozens of Africans in Rosarno, in the Calabria region, smashed car windows with steel bars and stones and set cars and rubbish bins on fire late into Thursday night.

Police said at least one car was attacked while passengers were inside -- several of whom were injured.

The immigrants, who also blocked a road, clashed with police in riot gear. Some 15 were arrested and 20 were injured.

The incidents took place after white youths in a car fired air rifles at a group of African immigrants returning from work on farms, injuring two of them.

On Friday morning some 2,000 immigrants demonstrated in front of the town hall to protest against what they said was racist treatment by many locals. Some shouted “we are not animals” and carried signs reading “Italians here are racist.”

Scattered acts of vandalism by immigrants continued on Friday morning as some smashed store windows.

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Schools were ordered closed as tensions remained high. One white resident fired live ammunition in the air from a terrace, local media reported.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni ordered more police into the area and set up a task force to look at what caused the violence.

A smaller riot by immigrants broke out near Naples in September 2008.

Maroni, from the far-right Northern League party that is a junior partner in Silvio Berlusconi’s government, sparked controversy when he said one of the causes of the violence was that illegal immigration had been “tolerated all these years.”

Opposition leader Pierluigi Bersani accused Maroni of raising tension in the area.

“Maroni is passing the buck ... we have to go to the roots of the problem: Mafia, exploitation, xenophobia and racism,” Bersani said.

Immigrants work in the area as day labourers picking fruit and vegetables. Some 1,500 live in squalid conditions in abandoned factories with no running water or electricity and human rights groups say they are exploited by organised crime.

Calabrian regional governor Agazio Loiero said while the action of the immigrants was totally unjustified, he acknowledged there had been “a strong provocation.”

Italy has taken a hard line against illegal immigration and has moved to stem a tide of boatloads of immigrants who try to arrive on its southern shores from Africa. Some boats have been turned back on the open seas.

Writing by Philip Pullella; editing by Robin Pomeroy