News Analysis: Is it safe enough for G7 meeting on Italy's hilltop island of Taormina?

Source: Xinhua| 2017-05-20 20:20:55|Editor: Song Lifang
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By Eric J. Lyman

ROME, May 20 (Xinhua) -- While the Sicilian city of Taormina with population of only 11,000 is struggling for the security precautions ahead of the Group of Seven (G7) summit that will take place next week, security experts say the remote location of the talks will make it easier to protect the world leaders.

The G7 meeting will bring together the heads of government from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the United States.

It will also be G7 debut for France's newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Italy is reported to be spending at least 15 million euros (16.5 million U.S. dollars) to improve roads and clean up historical sites. But these measures seem failed to win the heart of the local, who are complaining about the negative impact of the two-day meeting, including keeping away tourists at start of the high season.

And traffic pressure is another major complaint, considering the narrow and winding roads of the small city. Even Taormina's main avenue, Corso Umberto, is only about 800 meters long, and it will have to host a motorcade of as many as 30 cars for the G7 leaders that will nearly fill the street's entire length.

"All the security measures are keeping tourists away and they are driving the residents crazy," Taormina mayor Eligio Giardina said in an interview.

But security experts are showing the other side of the coin, an easier protection to the leaders, as the talks will be held on an island, which can only be reached via flights or ferry boats from the mainland. It will be more expensive for protestors to make a trip onto the island, said the experts.

And Taormina's hill-top location means that protests will be limited to villages at sea level, 200 meters below Taormina. The defensive terrain, a main factor leading to the founding of Taormina by Greeks in the eighth century B.C., today offers favorable security conditions to the 10,000 security personnel tasked to prevent unauthorized people from entering the city.

"Just as an example, the city will be closed off from May 22, four days before the leaders arrive, until after they leave," Alessandro Orsini, director of the Security Observatory at Rome's LUISS University, told Xinhua. "That makes it impossible for a potential threat to be there when the leaders arrive."

Sabrina Magris, president of the Ecole Universitaire Internationale, which specializes in security issues, agreed. "Taormina will be like a giant, natural fortress," Magris said in an interview.

Still, the security measures may not be enough for President Trump, whose visit to Taormina will be part of his first foreign trip since he took the office. Reports say Trump will not join the other six leaders, who will sleep in Taormina. Instead, he will reportedly sleep on a Navy vessel connected to the U.S. military base at Sigonella, around 65 km southwest of Taormina, and will travel to Taormina every day by helicopter.

But that opens up another potential, even if extremely unlikely, a natural threat from Mt. Etna, Europe's largest active volcano. The airway between Sigonella and Taormina flies over Mt. Etna, which last erupted in March when a small flank eruption injured 10 people.