Italy seeks to move G-8 summit to quake-hit city

ROME (AP) âÄî Italy’s government wants to move this summer’s Group of Eight summit from Sardinia to earthquake-stricken L’Aquila âÄî both to save money and to give the devastated central region an economic boost. Premier Silvio Berlusconi told a news conference Thursday after a Cabinet meeting in L’Aquila that the cost of holding the July 8-10 summit on the Sardinian island of La Maddalena would be âǬ220 million ($285 million). Berlusconi said that money would be better spent on reconstruction efforts in Italy’s Abruzzo region. He gave no figure for how much it would cost to host the summit in L’Aquila, but maintained the move would save money. The death toll from the April 6 quake rose to 296 on Thursday, with the death reported by the news agency ANSA of an elderly man who was injured when his house collapsed. The temblor drove some 50,000 from their homes and toppled or heavily damaged thousands of buildings around the mountain city of L’Aquila. Many of those people have taken refuge in tent cities, which were made miserably muddy Thursday by a pounding rainstorm. But with L’Aquila just a one-hour drive from Rome, Berlusconi insisted there were enough hotels and conference venues for delegates and journalists. And he said demonstrators might think twice before marching on the quake-devastated region, as opposed to a deluxe seaside resort in Sardinia. Italian media had previously reported that the government was having trouble organizing the summit on La Maddalena and finding ships that were to host the delegations and journalists. But Italian organizers denied there were any such problems. The island, selected by Berlusconi’s predecessor Romano Prodi, had a U.S. Navy support base that was closed last year and was undergoing extensive construction to prepare for the summit. Berlusconi said the summit could be hosted in the same venue as Thursday’s Cabinet meeting, a military school that has been turned into the headquarters for the rescue and recovery operation. The sprawling complex, complete with barracks and a heliport, recently held a mass funeral for some 200 victims of the quake on its broad parade grounds. The change of venue depends on the approval of other participating countries. “The G-8 doesn’t only concern Italy,” said Infrastructure Minister Altero Matteoli. “The premier will have to consult all the heads of state.” The office of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, expressing “deep sympathy” for the Italian people after the quake, issued a statement saying the decision on the venue “rests with the Italian government. We look forward to engaging in a range of issues at the summit.” Berlusconi said he hoped other countries would “adopt” some of the dozens of churches, castles and other centuries-old treasures damaged in the quake, adding that G-8 leaders would be taken to tour the sites they offer to restore. Moving the G-8 venue is “a symbolic gesture that would help keep attention focused on Abruzzo,” said center-left opposition leader Dario Franceschini. “But I hope the government will keep in mind that this decision must not hinder the reconstruction.” During the Cabinet meeting, the government approved âǬ8 billion ($10.36 billion) in funding over three years to rebuild the area hit by the quake, Berlusconi said. The premier said the plan would be funded without levying new taxes. He said an initial âǬ700 million ($914 million) was earmarked for temporary housing to be built before winter for the thousands left homeless. Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti said the homeless would receive direct government contributions to repair or rebuild their homes, financed by pre-existing Italian and EU funds as well as lotteries and betting games. Rome had also asked EU authorities to allow the creation of a tax-exempt zone in the quake area, Tremonti said. An initial government estimate had placed the reconstruction bill at âǬ12 billion ($15.5 billion), but Tremonti cautioned Thursday that the total costs had not been calculated yet.