A case of ‘friendly fire’

By Guy Dinmore in Rome and Giulia Segreti in L’Aquila

Polemics are flying on the eve of the G8 summit with Italy being the host very much in the thick of it.

Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, was outraged by an article in London’s Guardian newspaper headlined “Calls grow within G8 to expel Italy as summit plans descend into chaos”, citing unnamed officials as saying the US had been forced to take control and organise “sherpa calls” between the main organisers.

Launching into Twitter and Facebook, Frattini spluttered from Bucharest that the Guardian had got confused with the G20 summit organised by the Brits in London in April. “This is a friendly fire case,” said the minister. “If only the Guardian could be honest to recognise it!”

The Guardian’s suggestion that Spain should replace Italy as a member of the G8 even had opposition newspaper editorialists reaching for their pens to vent their indignation.

On the streets of Rome, rocks and bottles were flying instead. But by all accounts the skirmishes between small groups of Italian and foreign anarchists with riot police were isolated and had little impact except to make traffic even worse than usual.

Slightly more sinister were eye-witness accounts that Italian ministry of finance riot police were reinforced by unidentified plainclothes men in white T-shirts wielding batons. Memories are strong in Italy of the mass no-global protests at their last G8 summit in Genoa in 2001 when one demonstrator was shot dead and many brutally assaulted by police in night attacks on their shelters.

A group of Belgian socialists who came all the way from Antwerp to protest peacefully were dismayed at how the no-global movement had disintegrated, in spite of the impact of the financial crisis on workers. “The Anarchists are so disorganised,” one complained, saying he could get no information on where and when their actions were planned.

Just a mile away in another state, Pope Benedict XVI launched his own personal protest in the form of his third encyclical issued since he assumed the papacy four years ago. Timed for the G8 summit and titled Charity in Truth, the German-born pontiff weighed in against unbridled capitalism and called for  a “true world political authority” to oversee and regulate a return to ethics in the global economy.

But he dashed any chance of winning the hearts of mainstream development agencies by also attacking NGOs that encouraged abortion, sterilisation and contraception.

As one Belgian socialist pointed out they shared in common the pope’s desire to change but not reject globalisation, but that their approach ended there. “He wants change to come from people, leading to material change. We want the conditions to change first,” said the socialist attending an authorised anti-G8 rally what was outnumbered by riot police, tourists and reporters.

In L’Aquila, where 39 or so heads of government and international institutions will meet from on Wednesday, security forces have imposed such a lockdown that many of those residents who managed to stay after the devastating April 6 earthquake, decided to head for the hills, leaving the town even more ghost-like.

Journalists taken in buses to the summit venue – the finance ministry police college – were pleasantly surprised to find a well equipped media centre with telephones and computers provided. Whether it can really take the 3,500 or so reporters applying for accreditation remains to be seen.

And diplomats with one European delegation told the FT they were impressed by arrangements, so far.

L’Aquila’s 22,000 people living like refugees in tents will be joined by one more though on a rather more glamorous scale. Libya’s Muammar Gadaffi, attending the summit as head of the African Union, will be pitching his inside the well guarded police compound, not very far from where Barack Obama’s mobile basketball hoop is parked.

Sherpas tonight are busy tweaking communiqués and filling the blanks. It remains to be seen how forthright there will be condemnation of Iran’s crackdown on opposition demonstrators and what will be said about China’s far bloodier suppression of ethnic unrest among Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. Agreements on climate change and how much money will be put into a food security scheme also remain to be hammered out.

Any delegates looking forward to a bit of Silvio Berlusconi’s renowned hospitality and lavish parties might come away a little disappointed. The theme is rather un-Italian Spartan, supposed to be in keeping with a city recovering from its earthquake and the world from its financial crisis.

Still the surrounding Abruzzo region will be providing the best of its food and wine, while Autogrill, the motorway chain, does the catering.

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Leyla Boulton is an editor on the FT's main newsdesk
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT's media editor
Robin Harding is an FT correspondent in Tokyo
George Parker is the FT's political editor
Sean Smith is an editor on the FT's international companies desk

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