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Coronavirus: Protests in Italy over new pandemic crackdown turn violent

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Smoke billows as clashes broke out during a protest against the government restriction measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Turin, Italy, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.
Smoke billows as clashes broke out during a protest against the government restriction measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Turin, Italy, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.   -   Copyright  Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP
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Thousands of protesters turned out several Italian towns and cities on Monday to vent their anger, sometimes violently, at the latest pandemic restrictions.

The demonstrations came on the day when restaurants and cafes were forced to close early, and cinemas, gyms and other leisure venues were closed altogether.

The new measures are the government's response to soaring COVID-19 infections which have brought fears that hospitals may become overwhelmed.

Violence clouds peaceful protests

In the northern city of Turin, some demonstrators broke off from a peaceful protest, smashing store windows on an elegant shopping street, setting smoke bombs and hurling bottles at police in a main city square where the Piedmont regional government is headquartered, RAI state TV said.

A photographer was injured by a hurled bottle, RAI said. Police fired tear gas to clear the protesters in Piazza del Castello. Several people were reportedly arrested.

In that same square, hours earlier, some 300 taxis peacefully lined up in neat rows to draw attention to their economic losses from the implosion of tourism and disappearance of workers from the city centre as they do their jobs remotely during the pandemic.

In Italy's business capital, Milan, police used tear gas to scatter protesters Monday night, and an Associated Press journalist saw at least two people detained.

Trams were vandalised, bins set on fire, scooters overturned and some windows smashed. Bottles and smoke bombs were hurled at security forces who responded with tear gas.

In the south, clashes were also reported between groups of youths and police in Naples, where thousands of people called for the resignation of the head of the Campania region.

Economic woes

Smaller cities, including Catania in Sicily, and towns also saw protests Monday. In Cremona, a town in northern Lombardy, restaurant owners turned out in front of the local interior ministry's office. After banging pots and bans, they left them piled up in the street to highlight their economic woes worsened by the latest early-shutdown decree, the ANSA news agency said.

The protests began shortly after the national government's order took effect requiring bars, cafes and restaurants to close their doors at 6 p.m. for the next 30 days as Italy tries to rein the resurgence of coronavirus infections in recent weeks.

Since most Italians don't dine out before 7:30 p.m. at the earliest, the decree effectively wiped out most of the restaurants' already reduced revenue in the pandemic, although takeout and delivery can continue until midnight.

The restrictions also require high schools to move to at least 75% distance learning while younger children remain in classrooms.

Indoor and outdoor gatherings including for religious reasons are banned. The government also strongly recommends people avoid having house guests and travelling in the country except for work, health or other necessities.

Extremist groups implicated

Triggering the violence in Turin were a group of “ultras,” as violent soccer fans are known, the LaPresse news agency said. It said five of the protesters were detained by authorities.

Last week, a peaceful march by shopkeepers and other business owners in Naples, upset about a regional curfew that orders citizens off the streets at 11 p.m., turned violent near the Campania region's headquarters. Investigators were quoted in Italian media as saying the violence, in which police officers were injured, bore the hand of the Camorra, the local organized crime group.

A day later, an extreme right political group staged a violent demonstration in downtown Rome.

Far-right politicians have slammed the restrictions. But the political left and the government have accused the right of surfing on popular discontent. "Don't forget that the real enemy is the virus," Italy's President Sergio Mattarella said on Monday.

People urged to 'take responsibility'

The Italian crackdown was announced on Sunday, a day after the country registered more than a half-million confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic's outbreak.

Italy has been registering around 20,000 new confirmed infections per day and health authorities have warned that some hospital COVID-19 wards risk hitting the saturation point in the next week or two.

Europe's confirmed death toll from coronavirus has topped 250,000 according to the US Johns Hopkins University.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said national lockdowns can be avoided, urging countries to use other methods to stop virus transmission, including boosting surveillance, testing and contact tracing.

A senior WHO official said on Monday that people should take personal responsibility for everyday decisions, such as whether to visit crowded places, avoiding closed environments and postponing social gatherings.