ROME (Reuters) - Plans for separate bus routes for residents and immigrants in the southern Italian town of Foggia sparked allegations of discrimination on Thursday and revived a debate over the treatment of non-EU citizens.
Authorities in Foggia, in the agricultural heartland of the southeastern province of Puglia, say the new 24/i bus service will take foreigners directly to an immigrant hostel, by-passing a working-class neighborhood served by the existing 24 bus.
"At the heart of the decision are the clashes between immigrants and residents," Foggia's center-left Mayor Orazio Ciliberti was quoted as saying in La Repubblica newspaper. He said immigrants would be free to travel on any bus they choose.
"We are not talking about racism, but about providing a better service."
The news of the route, which starts on Monday, sparked outrage in the Italian media, prompting comparisons with Apartheid-era South Africa and the fight against segregated buses in the southern United States during the 1950s.
"The route for non-EU citizens in Foggia, which smacks of segregation, should be abolished as soon as possible," said the regional president of Puglia, communist Nichi Vendola.
Authorities say friction has been rising between residents of the working-class neighborhood of Mezzanone and the roughly 800 migrants who live in the Cara center after a series of robberies blamed on foreigners.
Habib Ben Sghaier, head of immigrant association Asci in Foggia, branded the move racist and said local authorities were focused on coming local elections: "This is not how to achieve integration," he told La Repubblica.
Rights groups have accused Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition of discriminating against immigrants. But tough measures, including a crackdown on illegal migrants, have boosted Berlusconi's standing at home where immigrants have been charged with a number of high-profile rapes.
Writing by Daniel Flynn; editing by Andrew Roche