Italian riot police fired tear gas and water cannons in Rome on Saturday as violent protesters hijacked a peaceful demonstration against corporate greed, smashing bank windows, torching cars and hurling bottles.
Elsewhere, hundreds of thousands nicknamed “the indignant” marched without incident in cities across Europe, as the “Occupy Wall Street” protests linked up with long-running demonstrations against European governments’ austerity measures.
Heavy smoke billowed in downtown Rome as a small group broke away and wreaked havoc in streets close to the Colosseum and elsewhere in the city.
Clad in black with their faces covered, protesters threw rocks, bottles and incendiary devices at banks and Rome police in riot gear. With clubs and hammers, they destroyed bank ATMs, set trash bins on fire and assaulted at least two news crews from Sky Italia.
Riot police charged the protesters repeatedly, firing water cannons and tear gas. Around 70 people were injured, according to news reports, including one man who tried to stop the protesters from throwing bottles.
TV footage showed one young woman with blood covering her face, while the ANSA news agency said a man had lost two fingers when a firecracker exploded.
In the city’s St. John in Lateran square, police vans came under attack, with protesters hurling rocks and cobblestones and smashing the vehicles. Fleeing the violence, peaceful protesters stormed up the steps outside the Basilica, one of the oldest in Rome.
“People of Europe - Rise Up!” read one banner in Rome. Some activists turned against the violent group, trying to stop them and shouting “Enough!” and “Shame!”
Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno blamed the violence on “a few thousand thugs from all over Italy, and possibly from all over Europe, who infiltrated the demonstration.” Some Rome museums were forced to close down and at least one theatre cancelled a show.
Protesters also set fire to a building, causing the roof to collapse, reports said. The Defence Ministry denied reports it was one of its offices.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi called the violence a “worrying signal,” and added that the perpetrators “must be found and punished.”
Mr. Berlusconi barely survived a confidence vote Friday, with many questioning his leadership. Italy’s debt burden is second only to Greece in the 17-nation eurozone and the country is rapidly becoming a focus of concern in Europe’s debt crisis.
ANSA said four people from an anarchist group were arrested Saturday with helmets, anti-gas masks, clubs and hundreds of bottles in their car.