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Italians protest over U.S. base expansion

VICENZA, Italy (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Italians under heavy police guard marched through the city of Vicenza on Saturday to protest at the expansion of a U.S. military base that has divided the center-left government.

A protester looks towards a military base used by U.S. paratroops in the northern Italian city of Vicenza, February 17, 2007. REUTERS/Dario Pignatelli

Leftists who last year voted for Prime Minister Romano Prodi, an Iraq war opponent, turned out in droves to decry his approval for U.S. plans to expand the base in Vicenza, home of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Pacifists waved rainbow-striped peace banners while some protesters carried anti-American slogans like “Yankees go Home” as they marched through the city and gathered in a main square.

“There is no reason to have this base here,” said Antonio Faitta, a 25-year-old gardener who traveled from Genoa.

The Pentagon wants a larger base so that it can house the entire brigade instead of dividing it between Italy and Germany.

Prodi appealed to demonstrators to refrain from violence, following warnings from the interior minister that the protest could draw people “hostile to the forces of law and order”.

The U.S. embassy had warned Americans to steer clear of the small northern Italian city of 115,000, where officials also shut schools normally open on Saturday as a precaution.

But the protests were peaceful. Police estimates pegged the crowd at more than 70,000 people, a turnout that Environment Minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, of the Greens Party, said was a resounding “referendum against doubling the U.S. base”.

Prodi stood firm, saying the government’s program would not “change direction under the pressure of a protest”.

The base expansion is the latest headache for the 67-year-old prime minister, who has faced revolts by his broad leftist coalition partners on everything from gay rights to the budget and the presence of Italian peacekeepers in Afghanistan.

“Today, Prodi has been given a vote of no confidence by his own majority. He should step down,” said Isabella Bertolini of the center-right opposition Forza Italia party.


The demonstration had served as a lightning rod for anti-U.S. sentiment in a country where judges have ordered CIA agents and a U.S. soldier to stand trial for kidnapping and murder.

A Milan judge charged the CIA agents on Friday with abducting a Muslim cleric in Milan in a covert operation and flying him to Egypt. The U.S. soldier was charged on February 7 with murdering an Italian secret agent in Iraq, although both governments have described the 2005 shooting as an accident.

All will almost certainly be tried in absentia.

“I don’t want any more Americans here and I don’t want a new base. They should just leave us alone,” said Pucci Mori, a resident of Vicenza, who lives near the proposed base expansion.

“Wherever they go in the world, Americans cause trouble.”

The new barracks would be on the other side of the city from the existing one. That has raised worries about new roads to handle military traffic linking the two parts, loss of green space and strains on public services.

Residents fear it could even put Vicenza in danger.

“The people of Vicenza are concerned. The base would be in the heart of the city and in the case of a military conflict it could become a target,” said Nobel literature laureate Dario Fo.