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Italians protest the expansion of U.S. base

February 18, 2007|From Times Wire Services

VICENZA, ITALY — Tens of thousands of people marched through this northeastern Italian city Saturday under heavy police guard to protest a planned U.S. military base expansion.

Despite fears that violent demonstrators would be drawn to the protest, the march took place without incident, finishing outside the main train station where it started, as hundreds of police officers stood guard and helicopters hovered overhead.

The route did not pass the airport where the expanded base is to be built. Critics keep a permanent picket there.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi had appealed to demonstrators to refrain from violence, after warnings from the Interior Ministry that the protest could draw people "hostile to the forces of law and order."

Police estimated the crowd from 50,000 to 80,000, but organizers put the number at 120,000.

Trains and buses brought in leftist activists and antiglobalization protesters from across Italy to support residents concerned that the expansion would increase traffic, noise and air pollution, deplete local resources and raise the risk of terrorist attacks.

"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 Dario Fo, a playwright awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1997.

The Pentagon wants a larger base so it can house the entire 173rd Airborne Brigade instead of dividing it between Italy and Germany.

Prodi's government has approved the project, angering his leftist allies. The Communist and Green parties, members of the governing coalition, backed the protest, although no one from the government showed up after Prodi banned ministers from attending.

Prodi said his government had no reason to halt the expansion, which has been approved by local authorities.

The base has about 2,900 active-duty military personnel. The expansion at the Dal Molin airport, across town, would allow the U.S. military to transfer four battalions now based in Germany, raising the number of personnel at the base to 5,000.

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