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Rome takes bulldozers to gaudy 'mafia' villas

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Rome (AFP)

Police on Wednesday began bulldozing eight villas built illegally in a suburb of Rome by an alleged mafia clan renowned for its violence and gaudy lifestyle, as those evicted cried foul.

As the walls toppled there were shouts of fury from members of the Casamonica, which has ethnic Sinti roots and reportedly runs drugs, fraud and extortion rings in Rome.

"Today the demolition has begun of the first two villas," said Mayor Virginia Raggi, as police removed the last bits of furniture from the opulent houses, decorated with gold-plated animal statues, chandeliers and imitation frescoes.

"All eight villas will be knocked down. We will not stop until we have returned this territory to the citizens of Rome," she said.

The illegal villas in the Quadraro neighbourhood incorporated whole sections of the historic Acqua Felice Aqueduct.

Over 600 police officers evicted around 30 people from the villas in a dawn raid on Tuesday in a coup for Raggi, who has been repeatedly blamed for Rome's degradation.

Mothers carrying young children on Wednesday asked to be allowed back into their homes to get basic necessities like food and medicines, according to an AFP video journalist.

- 'King of Rome' -

Some residents sat on the ground with their heads in their hands as the bulldozers got to work, while others shouted that they were being persecuted like the Jews under Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

The Casamonica clan was one of the alleged crime networks accused of infiltrating the city's government and influencing politicians in a large-scale corruption investigation in 2015.

The clan hit the headlines the same year for the showy send-off laid on in the capital for boss Vittorio Casamonica, whose coffin was drawn through the streets of Rome in a gilded horse-drawn carriage as roses petals were dropped from a helicopter.

Posters outside the church in the east of the city declared him the "King of Rome", while mourners were greeted with music from the film "The Godfather".

The demolitions were hailed by Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, whose far-right League is vehemently anti-immigrant and who has courted controversy with his plans to carry out a census of Italy's Roma population.

"I'm not going to stop until we've knocked down every last villa belonging to these damn people," he said.

Those evicted claimed they had been given no warning and had nowhere to take their children.

A lawyer for the Casamonicas told Italian media he would be challenging the demolition order.

Footage of Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte touring one of the seized villas -- complete with golden pillars and throne -- prompted ire from the opposition, who called on him Wednesday to get back to running the country.

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