May 15, 2008 / 12:12 PM / 10 years ago

Italy arrests 400 in illegal immigrants swoop

ROME (Reuters) - Italian police announced on Thursday the arrest of hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants in a sign of the new right-wing government’s determination to clamp down.

Police arrested 383 people including 268 foreigners, with 53 immediately taken to the border for expulsion, in a week-long operation stretching from northern Italy to the Naples area.

Silvio Berlusconi swept back to power for a third term as prime minister last week promising to get tough on illegal immigrants, blamed by many for crime. He is readying new laws to screen immigrants and jail or expel those breaking the law.

Those arrested came from Eastern Europe, Albania, Greece, North Africa and China and face charges ranging from illegal entry into Italy to prostitution, drug trafficking and robbery.

In Libya, police have arrested 240 would-be illegal migrants from several African countries over the past four days as they prepared to sail to Italy, the Interior Ministry said.

Libya is a springboard for hundreds of thousands of Africans trying to reach Europe via Italy on board unseaworthy boats.

The policeman in charge of the Italian operation, Francesco Gratteri, told a news conference the sweep “wasn’t aimed at any specific category or ethnic group. The sole objective were criminals who have caused a sensation of rising alarm in society”.

The focus of Italian concern about immigrant crime are the Roma, known here as “nomads”, who come mainly from Romania and other Eastern European countries. In Rome, police raided the biggest Roma camp and took away about 50 men for questioning.

The arrests coincided with a visit by Romanian Interior Minister Cristian David. Romania has Europe’s biggest Roma population and its prime minister warned this week that Italy’s crackdown could cause “xenophobia” against other Romanians.

Italy has tried to reassure the fellow European Union member that Romanians are not being targeted. The two countries have launched a joint police effort and Romania will despatch a task force of 15 officers to work with Italian police this month.

MIGRANT MISERY

Illegal Roma camps in Naples had to be evacuated by police this week after local people, angry at an alleged baby-snatching incident involving a 17-year-old Roma girl, set fire to their shacks repeatedly during the night. Nobody was injured.

Pope Benedict held an apparently unrelated meeting with the Vatican body for the care of migrant people, run by Cardinal Renato Martino who spoke of “miseries related to migration” and mentioned “gypsies”, a word some Roma consider offensive.

Italy’s new interior minister, Roberto Maroni from the anti-immigrant Northern League party, is rushing out emergency laws to bring back passport checks on Italy’s EU borders, despite its membership of the Schengen passport-free zone.

He also wants to make illegal immigration a jailable offense and speed up the deportation process.

The League made strong gains in national and local elections last month and is imposing tough measures to control immigrants in many northern cities. Its leader, Umberto Bossi, who often uses violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, said regarding the events in Naples: “People do what the political class can’t manage.”

“This operation against illegal immigrants is good because , it’s what people want. They ask us for security and we have to give it to them,” Bossi told reporters in parliament.

In League-run Verona, Mayor Flavio Tosi said his city had the biggest Romanian community in Italy. “There are 7,000 of them, working as builders, artisans and domestics. And they themselves say the Roma are a problem,” he said.

Additional reporting by Roberto Landucci and Lamine Ghanmi; Writing by Stephen Brown; Editing by Giles Elgood

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