ROME (Reuters) - Hundreds of African immigrants have been evacuated from a southern Italian town, authorities said on Sunday, following some of the worst racial violence in Italy since World War Two.
The evacuation followed three days of clashes in the southern Calabrian town of Rosarno, which began when some local residents began attacking immigrants who responded by rioting.
At least 53 people, including 18 policeman, were injured in the unrest in the town, located in Italy's southwestern toe.
Authorities moved more than 1,000 people, mostly illegal temporary workers from sub-Saharan Africa to immigrant centres around Italy in an operation that lasted from Saturday through to the early hours of Sunday.
Even workers with regular residence permits left the town to escape a climate that one political commentator compared to the 1960s Ku Klux Klan racial violence in the United States.
Immigrants without regular papers risk expulsion to their country of origin and the authorities on Sunday began demolishing their former makeshift homes in Rosarno.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said the government had "brilliantly resolved the problem of public order" and thanked police for organizing the exodus "in an exemplary way."
The violence has inflamed a long-running political debate on immigration. Maroni blamed the unrest on years of "mistaken tolerance" while the opposition accuses the government of fuelling xenophobia.
The front page headline of the anti-government Daily Fact newspaper referred to the immigrants' departure as "Ethnic Cleansing."
Pope Benedict departed from the prepared text of his weekly Angelus blessing to appeal for tolerance.
"An immigrant is a human being, different in origin, culture and tradition but he is a person with rights and duties who must be respected," he told the crowd in Saint Peter's Square.
AIR RIFLE ATTACK
The clashes started on Thursday, when a gang of white youths in a car fired air rifles at a group of African immigrants returning from work on farms, injuring two of them.
The attack set off a night of rioting by dozens of Africans, who smashed car windows with steel bars and stones and set cars and rubbish bins on fire. That in turn sparked more attacks from residents determined to drive the immigrants out of the area.
"I have never hurt anyone, I don't know why they attacked us, we are here to work," Ajra Saibu from Togo, one of the men fired at on the first night of violence.
Some 8,000 illegal immigrants work in Calabria, most as day laborers picking fruit and vegetables.
Many live in abandoned factories with no running water or electricity and human rights groups say they are exploited by the 'Ndrangheta, Italy's most powerful mafia organization.
"The state does not exist in Calabria, it's the 'Ndrangheta which regulates social relations," said Pierferdinando Casini, leader of the opposition Union of Christian Democrats party.
Roberto Calderoli, a minister from the same far-right Northern League party as interior minister Maroni, said with unemployment at 18 percent in the south of Italy, "work should go to the Italians ... not to illegal immigrants."
If necessary, agricultural pay levels should be increased to make them acceptable to locals, he said.
Silvio Berlusconi's government has taken a hard line against illegal immigration and has moved to stem a tide of immigrants who board boats in Africa to try to reach its southern shores.
Some boats have been turned back on the open seas, prompting criticism of the Italian government by the United Nations' refugee agency. The European Commission has also voiced concern over the policy.