ROSARNO, Italy (Reuters) - Clashes between immigrants and locals in a southern Italian town entered a second day on Friday, with the government rushing extra police to try to stem one of the worst episodes of racial unrest in years.
The violence inflamed a long-running political debate on immigration, with the interior minister saying years of excessive “tolerance” were behind the violence, and the opposition accusing the government of fuelling xenophobia.
President Giorgio Napolitano called for an immediate end to the unrest, during which at least 37 people, including 18 policemen, have been injured.
Some 8,000 illegal immigrants work in the southern Calabria region where the clashes have erupted, most as day laborers picking fruit and vegetables. Many live in abandoned factories with no running water or electricity and human rights groups say they are exploited by organized crime.
The clashes started on Thursday, when a gang of white youths in a car fired air rifles at a group of African immigrants returning from work on farms, injuring two of them.
The attack set off a night of rioting by dozens of Africans, who smashed car windows with steel bars and stones and set cars and rubbish bins on fire.
“Those guys were firing at us as if it were a fair ground, they were laughing. I was screaming and there were other cars passing by but nobody stopped, nobody called the police,” Kamal, a Moroccan, told La Repubblica newspaper.
On Friday, the violence continued. Police said two immigrants were shot at with air rifles and suffered leg wounds, while two others were attacked with iron bars and were said to be in serious condition.
Earlier, about 2,000 immigrants demonstrated 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 throughout the day as some smashed store windows. Police said that in two separate incidents locals had tried to run over immigrants with their cars. Schools and many shops were closed.
Hundreds of local residents gathered outside the town hall on Friday evening, many of them asking that the government intervene against the immigrants.
“They are the ones who should be afraid now, they should go away,” one resident told Sky Italia television.
The national police chief ordered additional security forces to the area.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, from the far-right Northern League party that is a junior partner in Silvio Berlusconi’s government, set up a task force to look into what caused the violence.
Maroni sparked controversy when he said one of the reasons for the violence was that illegal immigration had been “tolerated all these years.”
Opposition leader Pierluigi Bersani and several center-left politicians accused Maroni of fuelling the tension.
“Maroni is passing the buck ... we have to go to the roots of the problem: Mafia, exploitation, xenophobia and racism,” Bersani said.
Italy has taken a hard line against illegal immigration and has moved to stem a tide of immigrants who board boats in Africa to try to reach its southern shores. Some boats have been turned back on the open seas.
additional reporting by Antonella Cinelli; Writing by Silvia Aloisi and Philip Pullella; editing by Noah Barkin