Anti-austerity anger in Italy

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti gave his full backing on Thursday to tax agency Equitalia, which has become a target for militant attacks and a focus for growing public anger against austerity.

'I wanted to have this meeting to assure you of my unconditional support and that of my government against numerous acts of intimidation and aggression,' Monti told the agency's managers on a visit to its headquarters in Rome.

'To restore confidence in a better future, we have to have confidence in the institutions that represent a state of law,' he said, adding: 'If everyone paid taxes, everyone would have to pay less and public services would be better.'

The debt crisis has driven many ordinary Italians to despair in recent months as an increase in the minimum pension age, a new property tax and a far-reaching crackdown against widespread tax evasion begin to take effect.

An unemployed builder set himself on fire outside an Equitalia office in Bologna in March because he could not pay a tax debt - and there has since been a highly publicised spate of similar suicides by small business owners.

The collection agency has also been a target for militants after its director general was injured when he opened a letter bomb sent to his offices in an attack claimed by a high-profile anarchist group in December last year.

Earlier this month a man armed with a shotgun and two pistols took hostages in an Equitalia office near Bergamo in northern Italy before allowing himself to be arrested and a protest against the agency in Naples turned violent.

Equitalia's critics say the agency's methods, including the seizure of assets like cars and homes pending payment of debt, are too harsh.

The agency has also been accused of going after small businesses and the self-employed and failing to move forcefully against corporate evasion.

'Your task is a difficult one and not very popular because no-one likes paying taxes, but you do it with a sense of responsibility and impartially. The economic crisis makes our work even more difficult and delicate,' Monti said.

Attilio Befera, head of the national tax agency, said: 'Ours is a difficult and thankless job and the events of the last few days show that unfortunately to carry it out lawfully is becoming even more difficult and thankless.'

Italy is estimated to lose between 120 billion and 150 billion euros ($153 billion and $190 billion) a year due to tax fraud.

Tax authorities said they managed to recover 12.7 billion euros last year and have already clawed back 10 billion euros so far this year.

Tax police say some evaders are being caught out by their addiction to fast cars, including a plumber in the town of Pescara with low revenues on paper who was found to own three properties, 30 bank accounts and a Ferrari.

In Naples, the family of a pensioner who tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head after an apparent mistake in his tax bill has teamed up with lawyers for football legend Diego Maradona who has had recurring tax woes.

They want to set up an anti-Equitalia political party - a mood that has also been sensed by Beppe Grillo, a populist comedian who made major inroads in a recent round of local elections as a result of growing disillusionment.

'Equitalia should be closed tomorrow morning,' Grillo told a rally on Thursday. 'Equitalia should keep companies alive, not force them to shut down.'
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