Police raids as tensions mount in Italy’s Chinatown

Italian police said on Friday they had raided nine premises as part of an investigation into a Chinese criminal gang they suspect of being behind a spate of attacks on North Africans.

Police raids as tensions mount in Italy's Chinatown
Prato is home to one of the biggest Chinese communities in Europe. Photo: AFP

The raids were carried out in the Tuscan town of Prato, home to one of the biggest Chinese communities in Europe and a booming textiles industry that is notorious for sweatshop exploitation.

The individuals being investigated are all linked to a Chinese cultural association “The City of the White Stag” and are also suspected of preying on law-abiding Chinese businesses.

Friday's raids were carried out under warrants issued for criminal association and commissioning racially motivated violence.

A police statement said the head of the White Stag group had organised vigilante style patrols in Prato as part of a protection racket which had led to attacks on Arab immigrants with no criminal connections.

The raids followed clashes between police and some 300 Chinese on Wednesday evening after a health-and-safety inspection of a Chinese-owned textile factory in Sesto Fiorentino, a suburb of Florence that is close to Prato.

The mini-riot was sparked after an altercation between officers and an elderly Chinese man who was stopped leaving the factory with a baby in his arms, according to local reports.

Four policemen and three workers were injured in the scuffles and police made two arrests.

Reports said protestors had shouted: “All you know how to do is to hand out fines.”

The clashes were raised at Friday's Foreign Ministry press briefing in Beijing.

Spokesman Hong Lei said Chinese diplomats had made representations to the Italian authorities, “asking them to enforce the law, carry out just investigations, and safeguard the security and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens in Italy.”

Hong said China would “continue to follow this incident and offer necessary assistance to Chinese citizens there within our remit.

“Meanwhile, we ask Chinese citizens in Italy to safeguard their own rights and interests in a reasonable way.”

'Very closed off'

The latest incidents underline long-standing tensions between the Italian authorities and the country's Chinese community, which has prospered economically but is regularly accused of showing no interest in integration and of sending millions in untaxed profits back to China.

In the Florence area, authorities have long battled the related problems of sweatshop exploitation and clandestine immigration.

But local officials say efforts to better regulate the textiles sector have born fruit since a 2013 fire in a garment factory left seven people dead.

It emerged afterwards that the workers had been living in the factory and were unable to escape because the windows were barred.

There are more than 270,000 Chinese living in Italy, of whom over a fifth own their own businesses, and the community contributes some €6 billion to the Italian economy, according to the Leone Moressa foundation.

Prato is officially home to some 16,000 Chinese nationals out of a total population of 191,000. But local sources say the real figure could be closer to 50,000.

Liu Xiaodong, the acclaimed Chinese contemporary artist, spent time in the town earlier this year and included several paintings of its Chinese residents in his recent “Migrations” exhibition in Florence.

In an interview with AFP, Liu said his contact with the Prato Chinese had left him surprised by the slow pace of their adaptation to Italian life.

“They have been there mostly for at least a couple of generations and still they are very closed off,” the artist said.

“They have their own customs and traditions and are still very separate from the local population. This model of migration is also problematic.”

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Runner dies in Italy-to-France ultra marathon

A runner taking part in an ultra-marathon in the Alps has died during the race after a fatal fall on a high-altitude mountain path, emergency services told AFP on Wednesday.

Runner dies in Italy-to-France ultra marathon
The race traverses Mont Blanc. Illustration photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP

The 35-year-old from the Czech Republic was taking part in a warm-up event ahead of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a famed endurance event that takes place every year around western Europe’s highest peak.

The man fell during the night after setting off with more than 1,000 other runners from the Italian ski resort of Courmayeur on Tuesday afternoon along the 145-kilometre course of the TDS race to Chamonix in France.

Emergency services were alerted after midnight on Wednesday and flew in a helicopter to the scene of the accident in the Bourg-Saint-Maurice district, but they were unable to revive him, local police commander Patrice Ribes told AFP.

Organisers of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, which takes places on Friday, said it was the first death in one of their events since their start in 2003.

Elsewhere in the French Alps on Wednesday, a 60-year-old climber died in the Isère region after suffering a fall of 30 metres.