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VIA: New York Times

ROME — More than a thousand African workers were put aboard buses and trains in the southern Italian region of Calabria over the weekend and shipped out to immigrant detention centers, following some of the country’s worst riots in years.

The clashes began Thursday night in Rosarno, a working-class city amid citrus groves in Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, after a legal immigrant from Togo was lightly wounded in a pellet-gun attack in a nearby city. It is not clear who pulled the trigger — the authorities said they were investigating whether organized crime had provoked the riots — but the consequences were severe.

Blaming racism for the attack, dozens of immigrants burned cars and smashed shop windows in Rosarno in two days of riots, throwing rocks at local residents and fighting with the police. More than 50 immigrants and police officers were wounded, none seriously, and 10 immigrants and locals were arrested before the authorities began sending the immigrants to detention centers elsewhere in southern Italy on Saturday.

The images emerging from Calabria over the weekend — of torched cars and angry African immigrants hurling rocks — were the most vivid example of the growing racial tensions in Italy, which have been exacerbated by an economic crisis whose depth has only recently been acknowledged in the national dialogue. Both the official and underground economies increasingly rely on immigrants, while Italy remains torn between acceptance and xenophobia.

The riots also shone a bright light on a side of the country rarely seen in tourist itineraries. On Sunday, the authorities began bulldozing the makeshift encampments outside Rosarno where hundreds of immigrants live in what human rights groups describe as subhuman conditions. They are often paid less than $30 a day picking fruit, a job that many Italians see as beneath them. Organized crime syndicates are known to have a strong grip on every level of the Calabrian economy.

“This event pulled the lid off something that we who work in the sector know well but no one talks about: That many Italian economic realities are based on the exploitation of low-cost foreign labor, living in subhuman conditions, without human rights,” said Flavio Di Giacomo, the spokesman for the International Organization for Migration in Italy.

The workers live in “semi-slavery,” added Mr. Di Giacomo, who said, “It’s shameful that this is happening in the heart of Italy.”

Pope Benedict XVI veered from his prepared remarks in his Angelus message on Sunday to denounce the violence in Calabria.

“An immigrant is a human being, different in origin, culture and tradition, but he is a person to respect, with rights and duties,” the pope said. He also criticized the “exploitation” of immigrants.

It was not entirely clear if all the immigrants left willingly for the detention centers, or if some were forced to leave. In a reconstruction of the days of violence, the police said they were protecting the immigrants against would-be assailants, at least one of whom brandished a pistol.

Some immigrants told the Italian news media that Calabrians had shot at them and beaten them with sticks in the riots, and a front-page editorial in La Repubblica on Sunday compared the situation to Ku Klux Klan violence in the United States in the 1960s. But other news reports said that many immigrants had fled their encampments in haste before the police began clearing them with bulldozers.

Not all immigrants appear to have left the city, but those who are in the immigration centers with regular residence permits, or who had requested political asylum, are free to go, the interior minister, Roberto Maroni, said Sunday in a television interview. The others, he said, will be identified and deported.

The riots in Rosarno were a rare instance in which an entire city was engulfed by immigrant violence. In September 2008, Italy sent 400 members of the National Guard to Castelvolturno, outside Naples, after violent protests broke out over the shooting deaths of six African immigrants in clashes with the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. Last February, immigrants set fire to the detention center on the island of Lampedusa, where many had been held awaiting deportation.

There are 4 million legal immigrants in Italy, out of a population of 60 million, and even more illegal immigrants. And while many Italians rely on them to work in their businesses and take care of their young children or elderly parents, many Italians see the new arrivals as a threat.

In television interviews, some Rosarno residents said they had lived peacefully alongside the immigrants and tried to give them work and food. But others were more hostile. “We’ve put up with them for 20 years,” one man shouted in a television interview on Sky TG24.

In recent years, the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has issued strong anti-immigrant statements. Mr. Berlusconi, who is recovering after being struck in the face with a statuette of the Milan cathedral by a mentally unstable man last month, has not commented on the riots.

But in his interview on Sunday, the interior minister, Mr. Maroni, called the situation in Rosarno “the fruit of the wrong kind of tolerance.” The day before, he had been quoted as saying the riots were the fruit of “too much tolerance.”

A member of the powerful Northern League Party, known for its anti-immigrant language, Mr. Maroni also defended a proposal introduced by his party last week to cap the number of immigrant students in public school classes at 30 percent. “Sometimes they speak different languages, and there’s no common balance in the classroom,” Mr. Maroni said.

Human rights groups say that many African immigrants come to Italy with what appear to be legal offers of work in the agricultural sector in the south, often by paying middlemen more than $10,000 for the opportunity. When they arrive, the rights groups say, the immigrants often find that the agricultural outfits refuse to honor their end of the bargain, instead compelling the migrants to work under the table at wages far below the legal minimum wage. Often, the outfits that hire them have links to organized crime.

Mr. Maroni has said in the past that the ’Ndrangheta, or Calabrian Mafia, is the most powerful organized crime group in Italy because its members are bound by strong blood ties, making it difficult to cultivate informants. Last week, two bombs were found at the main courthouse in Reggio Calabria, in what was widely seen as a message by the ’Ndrangheta to prosecutors trying to dismantle clans.