Hundreds of African immigrants have been evacuated from a southern Italian town, authorities said yesterday, following some of the worst racial violence in Italy since World War II.

The evacuation followed three days of clashes in the southern Calabrian town of Rosarno. At least 53 people, including 18 policeman, were injured in the unrest in the town, located in Italy's southwestern toe.

Authorities moved more than 1,000 people, mostly illegal temporary workers from sub-Saharan Africa to immigrant centres around Italy in an operation that lasted from Saturday through to the early hours of yesterday.

Even workers with regular residence permits left the town to escape a climate that one political commentator compared to the 1960s Ku Klux Klan racial violence in the United States.

Immigrants without regular papers risk expulsion to their country of origin and the authorities yesterday began demolishing their former makeshift homes in Rosarno.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said the government had "brilliantly resolved the problem of public order".

The violence has inflamed a long-running political debate on immigration. Mr Maroni blamed the unrest on years of "mistaken tolerance".

The clashes started on Thursday, when a gang of white youths in a car fired air rifles at a group of African immigrants returning from work on farms. The attack set off a night of rioting by dozens of Africans, who smashed car windows with steel bars and stones and set cars and rubbish bins on fire. That in turn sparked more attacks from residents determined to drive the immigrants out of the area.

Some 8,000 illegal immigrants work in Calabria, most as day labourers picking fruit and vegetables.

Roberto Calderoli, a minister from the same far-right Northern League party as interior minister Maroni, said with unemployment at 18 per cent in the south of Italy, "work should go to the Italians... not to illegal immigrants".

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