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Thousands in Northern Italy Protest High-Speed Train Plans

Environmentalists and Italian residents of the northern Susa Valley, near Turin, turned out in large numbers to protest the planned construction of a high-speed railway link. But authorities say the project is strategic for the European transport system.

Thousands turned out near the small northern Italian town of Venaus to protest the start of drilling to construct a tunnel for a high-speed railway line linking Turin with Lyon, France.

Twenty mayors from the Susa Valley led the protest. There was a heavy police presence to avoid disorders but it was a peaceful demonstration. Many carried banners that read "NO TAV", the Italian acronym for high-speed train.

Residents of the Susa Valley have been protesting for weeks against the project, which they say will ruin the area. Many spent last night in the valley, covering themselves with heavy blankets from the cold.

They say they believe construction of the railway will cause environmental and health damage. Protesters said 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.

Venaus Mayor Nilo Durbiano said: "We hope to stop it being built, with the tools of civilization, democracy and dialogue."

Supporters of the project say it is eco-friendly. It will help move goods across a united Europe via rail instead of trucks, which, they say, cause more pollution. But residents are concerned the area will be a construction site for years.

The Italian government considers the project strategic to the Italian and European transport network. President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi spoke of the project and sent his message to protesters as he marked the International Day of Mountains.

Mr. Ciampi said "safeguarding our mountains does not mean isolation. We cannot afford to be cut out of the great European networks. We must use progress in technology and scientific knowledge, he added, to guarantee protection of the environment. "