Horrified residents watched Rome burn Saturday after an off-shoot of Rome's "Occupy Wall Street" protest turned violent. Italian riot police fired tear gas and water cannons after a group of violent protesters hijacked the demonstration against corporate greed. Rioters smashed bank windows, torched cars and hurled bottles. The European 'occupy'-ers called themselves "the indigent."
AP reports that heavy smoke billowed in downtown Rome as the 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 according to AP. With clubs and hammers, they destroyed bank ATMs, set trash bins on fire and assaulted at least two news crews from Sky Italia. Protesters also stormed into a church, tore a crucifix off the wall and smashed a statue of the Virgin Mary. RT video of the of the chaotic scene that unfolded in Rome:
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 theater canceled a show.
Protesters also set fire to a building, causing the roof to collapse, reports said. The Defense 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."
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.
Rome's mayor said Sunday that it could cost at least a euro1 million ($1.4 million) to recover from the havoc wreaked by rioters who smashed windows, tore up sidewalks and torched vehicles after breaking off from a peaceful protest. The estimate came as clean-up work continued in damaged neighborhoods, where many charred vehicles remained parked along the streets.
Reuters reports that the scale of destruction shocked many residents. Many Italians have questioned why police only arrested 12 of the violent demonstrators, according to Reuters:
"'They must be condemned by everyone without reservation,' Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said.
'Yesterday we once again showed the world the anomaly of Italy and today, again, we have to feel shame,' La Stampa newspaper said. Mayor Gianni Alemanno said the capital would long suffer the ;moral damage' of the rampage."
The New York Times writes that Saturday's riots were the worst riots in Italy since the Group of Eight summit meeting in Genoa in 2001.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.