Thousands people gathers in northern Italy

Thousands of people gathered in northern Italy on Wednesday to protest the drilling of a tunnel for a high-speed rail line linking Turin with Lyon, France, delaying the beginning of construction work for the project. It was the latest in a series of protests staged in recent weeks by environmentalists and residents of the Susa Valley, located between Turin and the French borders.

The construction was scheduled to begin Wednesday morning, but access to the construction site was blocked by the protesters.

"Thousands of Susa Valley residents are gathering around the perimeter of the construction site to protect our territory," said Antonio Ferrentino, a protest leader. "In the upcoming days, night and day, we'll be here."

Some of the protesters camped out overnight, others arrived at dawn to take part in the demonstration, which was held under heavy police presence. Ferrentino put the number of protesters at around 15,000. The protesters claim that a high-speed train line would ruin the area and that drilling the tunnel could release potentially harmful materials such as asbestos and uranium; supporters of the project say the high-speed line would reduce pollution by transferring much of the traffic from vehicles to trains.

Enrico La Loggia, regional affairs minister, described the project as "absolutely strategic" to improving the transport network in Italy, and said it could not be given up.

Speaking from Rome, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi also weighed in indirectly.

"Safeguarding our mountains does not mean isolation. We can't afford to be cut out of the great European networks," said Ciampi. "We must use progress in technology and scientific knowledge to guarantee protection of the environment,” reports the AP. I.L.

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