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Mr Berlusconi aims to be perfect host

By David Willey
BBC Rome correspondent

A topiary plant at the Group of Eight (G8) press centre
The summit is turning into a logistical nightmare

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's billionaire prime minister, is playing host this week to leaders of the world's other seven most powerful industrial nations in the unlikeliest of all venues.

The central Italian mountain town of L'Aquila was all but wiped out by an earthquake last April, and continues to shudder with aftershocks.

He has also invited along to his mega-meeting the leaders of another two dozen countries including the economic giants of the future and a handful of much poorer African nations.

The event is called G8.

And it is already turning into something of a logistical nightmare. The VIP guests are being ferried by helicopter to and from the party venue - a rather unattractive but reputedly seismically safe police barracks, just outside L'Aquila, dressed up for the occasion.

A military exclusion zone has been set up around the barracks with roadblocks to ward off any potential party poopers in the shape of anti-global demonstrators.

Criticism

Thousands of police and soldiers with sharpshooters all around the perimeter are providing security, virtually cutting off the sorely tried citizens of L'Aquila from any contact with the celebrations.

An officer patrols on the roof of the venue at the G8 summit site
Security is tight around L'Aquila

True, Mr Berlusconi is already conducting his guests on guided tours of the heavily damaged city to demonstrate how well the Italian state is responding to the disaster which killed 300 and left 50,000 homeless.

However many of the homeless of L'Aquila are still living in tented camps just nearby, and to judge by some of their reactions expressed in the Italian media in recent days, they are not at all amused at being showcased to world leaders.

The local mayor, who belongs to the opposition Democrat party, says he is furious at the lack of progress so far in repairing the damage and rebuilding homes. He spoke angrily on Italian state TV about his city having disappeared into a "financial black hole" and Mr Berlusconi's failure to live up to to his generous promises of financial aid immediately after the quake.

Mr Berlusconi is also furious at what he claims is unfair criticism of his last-minute organisation of the G8 summit by the foreign press, egged on, he claims, by the left-wing opposition Democrats.

The summit was originally planned to be held on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia at a former US nuclear submarine base, with heads of state and their delegations accommodated on a luxury cruise liner.

Image problem

Logistically this also presented problems, but nothing like those created by the sudden switch to an earthquake zone where ordinary life, and the telecommunications network necessary for the summit to function, remain precarious as a result of the recent natural disaster.

The village of Onna near L'Aquila
Some areas in the region of L'Aquila still lie in ruins

One of the principal guests, the Chinese President Hu Jintao, has already left before it all begins. He had a different disaster to attend to - a revolt in remote Xinjiang.

President Barack Obama is getting a private basketball net, thoughtfully provided by his Italian host outside his private quarters at L'Aquila. But the US president's scheduled visit to see the Pope at the Vatican, cutting the final session of the G8, is arousing as much interest among many observers, as his presence at the summit.

In other words, Prime Minister Berlusconi has an image problem when he deals with foreign leaders. His recent private parties at his luxury homes in Rome and Sardinia, have been documented and reported ad nauseam during recent weeks in the Italian and international media, because of the reported presence of dozens of attractive young women, including paid escorts.

The Italian leader is by nature an optimist and an obsessive when it comes to small logistical details

Mr Berlusconi has cause to rue past G8 summits. During the one held in Naples during his first term in office in the summer of 1994, he was served with notice that he was under judicial investigation for alleged bribery - a move that led to the collapse of his government later that year.

Then the Genoa G8 summit in 2001 was marred by extensive violence. One demonstrator died, and trials regarding heavy police brutality towards protesters continue to this day.

But the Italian leader is by nature an optimist and an obsessive when it comes to small logistical details. "I am serene," he says. "Italians like me the way I am."

So it could be that Silvio Berlusconi's guests will enjoy their visit to Italy. This informal meeting of world leaders may actually turn out to be a useful private forum as well as an enjoyable event.

After all, the weather is good, the food is always marvellous in Italy, and for those not living in tents in L'Aquila, it's summer time.



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