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AFP - An Italian city devastated by an earthquake less than 100 days ago plays host to the world's major leaders on Wednesday to review efforts to shore up the foundations of the global economy.
US President Barack Obama and 23 other heads of government will see at first hand the damage wrought by the April 6 quake in the central city of L'Aquila which killed nearly 300 before surveying progress to help revive global trade.
The three-day summit of the group of eight (G8) most industrialised nations is a chance for the world's most powerful leaders to discuss whether the ailing global financial system is coming back to life and debate hot button issues such as climate change, Iran and deadly unrest in China's Xinjiang province.
The G8 -- comprising Japan, United States, Russia, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Canada -- was once regarded as the world's premier talking shop, but has found itself overshadowed by the G20 group which includes emerging powers.
In a reflection of the changing balance, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has invited leaders of China, India and Brazil for talks on world affairs he hopes he will deflect some of the focus away from his private life.
Asked in an eve of summit press conference whether increasingly lurid headlines would mar the gathering, a defiant Berlusconi told reporters: "I have the confidence of 64 percent of Italians -- that's the reality."
Instead, the Italian premier said he hoped the summit would see the launch of an initiative to raise between 10 and 15 billion dollars to boost food security in poor countries and said a thaw in relations between Washington and Moscow following a trip by Obama to Moscow augured well.
While Berlusconi said a long road lay ahead in trying to get agreement among world leaders on a new framework for global finance, a senior British government official said the meeting would be "an important milestone" between a G20 summit in London in April and a follow-up in Pittsburgh in September.
At the London meeting, the G20 agreed to commit one trillion dollars to the International Monetary Fund and other global bodies to help struggling economies and the green shoots of recovery have been detected in some quarters.
"There's a general view that there are signs of stabilisation in the world economy but it's very uncertain... we need to maintain the policies we have at the moment," said the British official.
Britain and France want the summit to focus on bringing greater stability to the oil market after a 12-month period which has seen the price for a barrel of crude fluctuate between 32 and 147 dollars.
Both countries also want the summit to exert pressure on Iran in the wake of its post-election crackdown despite Russian reluctance to internationalise the issue. The subject is likely to figure at a banquet on Wednesday night.
Chinese President Hu Jintao cut short an official visit to Italy for the summit and left for home early Wednesday "due to the situation in northwest China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region" the Xinhua news agency reported.
In Rome, the ANSA news agency quoted Tang Heng, the first political counsellor at the Chinese embassy in the Italian capital, as saying Hu decided to curtail his trip "given the worsening of the disorder in Xinjiang."
State Councillor Dai Bingguo would take part in the summit on Hu's behalf, Xinhua reported.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had planned to speak to Hu on the margins of the summit about the violence in the remote region where 156 people died in weekend clashes.
While the state of the global economy will dominate proceedings, efforts to combat global warming will also feature prominently on Wednesday's agenda.
The G8 has prepared a draft communique calling on global emissions to peak by 2020 and then be "substantially reduced" to peg the rise in global temperatures to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels.
Around 15,000 police have been deployed to prevent a repeat of the violence which marred the last time Italy hosted a G8 summit in 2001 when a protestor was shot dead in Genoa.
Evacuation plans are also in place in the event of any major aftershock which would bring about an immediate cancellation of the gathering.