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Italy may shoot at illegal boats

Published: 9:58PM Monday June 16, 2003

A senior minister in the Italian government has said he wants navy and coastguard vessels to open fire using live rounds on any boats carrying illegal immigrants to Italy's shores.

Umberto Bossi, reforms minister in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative coalition, said in an interview published on Monday he was sick of illegal immigrants and wanted to hear "the blast of cannons".

"After the second or third warning, bang... we fire the cannon," Bossi told Corriere della Sera newspaper. "Without too much talking. A cannon to knock out whoever may be there. Otherwise we're never going to put an end to this problem."

Asked whether it would be right to fire on immigrants who are generally unarmed women and children, Bossi was firm.

"Whether they're good or bad, one way or the other illegal immigrants have got to be chased away. The navy and coastguard should defend our shores and use their cannons to do it. That's the best way to enforce the law. No deferring or turning back."

At present, the Italian navy is only permitted to board boats at sea and escort them back to port, in line with international practice.

Bossi's comments come in the wake of a recent surge in illegal immigration, with more than 1,000 people landing in southern Italy in the last three days and nearly 3,000 so far in June, most of them from north and central Africa.

In the first six months of this year, however, new arrivals have fallen sharply to around half the level of last year.

Bossi, who heads the right-wing Northern League party and co-authored a tough new immigration last year, said that if the government didn't start taking a harder line, he would pull his support for the coalition.

At the weekend, a senior member of his party called for the Interior minister to resign over the immigration issue. Bossi backed away from that call, but said he was getting to the end of his tether and wanted action soon.

"Whether the government's allies agree or not, I want to hear the sound of the cannons by the end of the week or I'm off," he said.

Well known for his outspoken comments, this is not the first time Bossi has threatened to withdraw his support for the government, which has a comfortable majority in the lower house of parliament but narrower support in the upper house.