NAPLES, Italy - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said yesterday that he would deploy the military to protect trash dumps around Naples as he pledged to remove tons of stinking garbage from its streets and to restore the city's image.
Berlusconi has long said the garbage emergency in Naples was his top priority, and by holding yesterday's cabinet meeting in this city he upheld a promise he had made before the election that swept him to power last month.
"We are convinced this will bring new life to Naples," he said. "The dream would be to see Naples blossom again."
The crisis began in December when garbage collectors stopped picking up trash because many dumps were full. It is a recurring problem - the result of years of bad government, the residents' protests, and, officials say, mob infiltration.
This time, the situation has spiraled out of control in Naples, a city of more than one million people.
Piles of garbage have been blocking sidewalks and streets in Naples and its suburbs, forcing residents to wade through knee-high trash. The stench is prompting some residents to stay inside and others to wear masks. Some have taken to burning rubbish and knocking over refuse bins, and some have hurled stones at firefighters trying to put out blazing trash.
Ahead of yesterday's meeting, the city's center and other areas were cleared of trash. But at least 3,000 tons remained to be picked up in Naples and an estimated 50,000 tons in Campania.
For years now, "every month, we've needed the equivalent of four soccer stadiums just to stock the trash," said Marco Demarco, the editor-in-chief of the local newspaper Corriere del Mezzogiorno.
Berlusconi said the army would be called in to guard dump sites and promised stiff measures for anyone caught trespassing or blocking refuse collection, including up to one year of jail time. Previous attempts to open dumps have been hampered by the protests of residents worried by health risks.
He refused to identify the sites, on the ground that he wanted to avoid immediate protests, but said that they would be disclosed in coming days.