Page last updated at 11:57 GMT, Wednesday, 14 May 2008 12:57 UK

Italy police to protect Gypsies

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Rome

Italian fire-fighters try to put out a fire in a Roma camp in Ponticelli overnight
There is deep suspicion in Italy of the Roma community

Italian police are being forced to protect Roma Gypsies who have come under attack from local residents in Naples two nights running.

Makeshift homes were set alight as demonstrators attacked two camps. The disturbance was sparked by an alleged kidnap attempt by a Roma teenager.

There is deep suspicion throughout the country of the Roma community.

The government is preparing controversial anti-immigration measures targeting Romanians in particular.

The incidents in Naples began when a 16-year-old Roma girl was caught inside an apartment last weekend, allegedly trying to steal a six-month-old baby girl.

Her arrest has sparked two days of bitter protests.

On Wednesday night, vigilante groups in the suburb of Ponticelli took to the streets chasing the Roma out of two squatter camps.

Molotov cocktails were thrown into makeshift huts as the Roma fled for the local police station. When they had gone, the two camps were torched.

Bad image

The Roma community is perceived they are responsible for a disproportionate level of crime.

In national elections last month, the centre-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi, which included the anti-immigration Northern League and the post-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale, swept to victory largely on its pledge to tackle illegal immigration.

In Rome, Gianni Alemanno, also of the Alleanza Nazionale, was elected mayor on a pledge to expel 20,000 people.

Silvio Berlusconi has described the Roma and those committing the crime as "an army of evil".

But critics say the government is stoking the suspicion and the reprisals, and last night the Vatican weighed in to appeal for calm.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the head of the Italian bishops' conference, said fear was understandable, but it could never be right for people to take the law into their own hands.

Romanian Interior Minister Cristian David is due to arrive in Rome on Thursday to try and defuse the growing tension.

He has proposed sending Romanian policemen and prosecutors to help the Italians combat crime.

So far in these attacks, there have been no reports of any deaths or injuries. But the people in the suburb of Ponticelli are demanding the Roma leave for good.

The 16-year-old girl is now on remand on suspicion of kidnap.

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