By Cristiano Corvino
ROME (Reuters) - It may be a coincidence, but Rome's city authorities are clearing 450 people out of an official Roma camp weeks after the new far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, said Italy's Roma should be counted and, if they are foreign, expelled.
The authorities say the clearance is routine; that the lease for the land has expired and it has tried without success to get the residents, also known as "gypsies" or "nomads", to move elsewhere, including to migrant shelters.
The residents, though, say the camp - where they have lived in pre-fabricated cabins provided by the municipality - is their home and that the alternatives offered either do not work or would divide families. And they blame Salvini.
"While I was sleeping with my children and my wife this morning, the police knocked at my door. They woke me up, to get us out of the container that belongs to the city," said Zarko Hadzovic, 44.
"They offered me a shelter to go to, without my wife and without my children. I said I do not accept it."
Since coming to power in a coalition government on June 1, Salvini, head of the far-right League, has been making waves by turning away humanitarian ships that have picked up migrants from North Africa in the Mediterranean.
But long before migration became a European humanitarian and now political crisis, Salvini was taking aim at Italy's 26,000 Roma, calling for their camps to be bulldozed because he says they are hotbeds of crime.
Although he says he wants to deport hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants living in Italy, he cannot take the same approach with Roma, many of whom are Italian citizens.
"Unfortunately, we will have to keep the Italian Roma because we can't expel them," he said this month, throwing the spotlight back on the Roma.
Many of Italy's Roma live in squalid shantytowns isolated on the outskirts of cities.
The camp being cleared on the edge of Rome this week, which has no running water, was home to 450 people in more than 100 families, about half of them children.
It is one of 148 official camps under the oversight of local governments, which exist alongside an unknown number of unofficial ones set up by the Roma themselves.
Police evicted families and then destroyed their pre-fabricated homes as they looked on. Though the decision was not directly tied to the new government, residents feel more vulnerable then before.
"Salvini ... did this," said Rasema Halilovic, 33, mother of seven. "This camp was in order and they destroyed it, they left us in the middle of the road."
Vincenzo Speranza, who worked for almost seven years for the association that managed the camp on behalf of the city, says the state should help integrate Roma, not push them further onto the fringes of society.
"This is an indecent way of treating people when there could have been solutions for all of this," he said, adding that low-rent communities should be created where anyone -- including Roma, poor Italians, and refugees -- can live.
Hadzovic, who has eight children, held up his children's passports.
"My children are all Italian citizens. They were born here. They went to school," he said. "We are human beings."
(Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Kevin Liffey)