Protest against Vicenza US Military Base expansion resume
A row over the expansion of an American military base in Vicenza has flared up again, with protesters occupying the northern city's most important monument.
Some 30 demonstrators have been inside Vicenza's Basilica since Wednesday evening.
They say they will remain there until Thursday evening, when fellow demonstrators are planning a march through the city centre.
The Basilica is one of Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio's masterpieces.
"This is a symbolic occupation in defence of Vicenza. The future of our citizens and our city, with its unique works of art, is at stake," one of the protesters told reporters.
They complained that a media silence had fallen on the issue since February, when more than 70,000 people took part in a protest march in the city against the base's expansion.
Premier Romano Prodi announced in January that he would not object to US plans to expand the city's military base, arguing that it was diplomatically impossible to go back on the informal consent given to Washington by the previous, Silvio Berlusconi-led government.
The decision sparked immediate protests by residents who fear that the enlargement will strain the city and its resources.
The old Vicenza base houses some 2,750 troops.
The expansion project involves building barracks at the Dal Molin airport on the other side of the city to accommodate 2,100 more US soldiers who are currently stationed in Germany.
Washington's aim is to unite its 173rd Airborne Brigade, which is divided at the moment between Vicenza and two bases in Germany.
But residents are concerned about the impact on a city which boasts a host of buildings and villas by Palladio, who settled in Vicenza and practically rebuilt the city in his classicising style. For this reason, Vicenza is on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.
Surveys show that some 70% of Vicenza's 115,000 residents are against expanding the base.
The Vicenza council has thrown out proposals to hold a referendum on the base's fate even though local polls have shown that 84% of locals would like to have a say on the issue.
The demonstrators warned on Thursday that the Basilica occupation was just the start of a fresh wave of protests against the base's enlargement.
Mayor Enrico Hullweck, who is firmly in favour of the base's expansion, has written to Prodi and Interior Minister Giuliano Amato asking for police reinforcements to deal with the growing protests.
The base project has also created divisions in the centre-left, nine-party governing coalition.
Three of Prodi's allies, the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC), the Italian Communists' Party (PDCI) and the Greens, have demanded that locals be given the chance to express their views via a referendum.
But Prodi says there can be no backpedalling on his decision.
Many opponents of the enlargement plan are now looking to Washington, hoping that the scale of the protest will convince the US administration to modify its project.
US officials have already indicated the American government's willingness to revise building plans in order to minimise the impact on the city and its residents.