ROME (AFP) — Italy deployed 3,000 troops to patrol major cities and sensitive areas Monday in a controversial move by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's right wing government to boost security.
Dressed in shirt-sleeve order and equipped with handguns, some 1,000 soldiers joined local police in Rome, Naples, Milan and other urban centres.
Another 1,000 were deployed around potential targets ranging from embassies to railway stations and churches, while a similar number were guarding holding centres for illegal migrants.
But mayor of Rome Gianni Alemanno said no soldier would patrol in the historic city centre where most tourists are concentrated.
On the island of Lampedusa, where thousands of migrants have arrived from Africa in recent months seeking to enter Europe, 70 air force troops were supplementing police who patrol the perimeter of a reception centre.
They are part of another 1,000 troops meant to be deployed around immigration centres.
The Italian left and police unions have criticised the use of troops, accusing Berlusconi's government of seeking to "militarize" city centres and cover up cuts in spending on defence and security.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, of the anti-immigrant Northern League, said he wanted to "give the public a better perception of security."
The government which took office in April has linked crime and illegal immigration and passed a series of measures aimed at cracking down on both.
But officials Monday played down the decision to draft in troops.
"In 1992, 20,000 men were sent to Sicily alone" to allow police to concentrate on fighting the Mafia after attacks on judges, deputy chief of the general staff General Mario Buscemi was quoted by Monday's daily La Repubblica as saying.
The support provided by 3,000 troops spread across Italy would be minor and "essentially symbolic", he said.
Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa announced in June that troops would be put at the disposal of regional governments for anti-crime missions. Parliament gave its backing to the measure last week.
Thousands of African migrants seeking to enter Europe have arrived in Lampedusa in recent months.
Of the 11,949 people who landed in Italy in the first six months of 2008, 10,402 arrived in Lampedusa, around double the number for the same period in 2007.
About 1,200 arrived on the holiday island off Sicily last Wednesday and Thursday.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »