Italians protest U.S. base

Tens of thousands peacefully march against expansion

February 18, 2007|By New York Times News Service

VICENZA, Italy -- Tens of thousands of people converged yesterday on this small city in the Veneto region of northern Italy for a peaceful protest against the planned expansion of a U.S. military base here.

The expansion would essentially double the base's size so it could house the full 173rd Airborne Brigade. The number of military personnel here would grow to about 4,500 from 2,750.

Residents of the area, saying they are concerned over the possibility of terrorist attacks, military traffic congestion and environmental damage, have staged a series of protests, and the widely publicized demonstration yesterday was billed as a chance for Italians to express their anger over U.S. foreign policy. Fears grew of a repeat of the violence that overtook anti-globalization protests in Genoa in 2001.

Italian authorities and law enforcement officials were on high alert, and the U.S. Embassy warned Americans to steer clear of Vicenza.

Yesterday, the airspace over Vicenza was temporarily closed, and most stores in its historic center were closed all day, some even boarded up. Several helicopters circled overhead, and 1,300 local and military police patrolled the streets, but the marchers, of all ages, made their way through the city peacefully.

Some marchers were at least as angry at their own government for failing to stop the expansion as they were at the United States.

"I don't like that they are building a military base here and that it is not even my country that is building it," said Andre Torlai, 21, a journalism student who arrived earlier in the day from Parma, his hometown. "There are people here that don't like America for a lot of reasons, but I am here more to protest against my own government."

Last week, Prime Minister Romano Prodi infuriated members of his ruling coalition, especially Communists and radical leftists, when he decided not to reverse the plan set in motion by his predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, to allow the expansion of the base. The center-right opposition seized on the dissent as a sign of the coalition's weakness.

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

Fueling the tensions in advance of the march, an Italian judge indicted 26 Americans on Friday, most of them CIA officers, in connection with the 2003 kidnapping in Milan of a radical Egyptian cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar.

This month, an Italian court ordered a U.S. soldier to stand trial in the death of Nicola Calipari, an Italian secret service agent killed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2005.

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