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Leaders Gather in Earthquake-Shattered Italian Town

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 8, 2009 11:09 AM

L'AQUILA, Italy, July 8 -- President Obama and other world leaders opened a Group of Eight summit Wednesday in this earthquake-shattered mountain city but seemed unlikely to reach consensus on how to repair their economies and prevent global warming.

Negotiations on climate change and other issues were dealt a setback when Chinese President Hu Jintao flew back home Tuesday to deal with ethnic clashes in the western province of Xinjiang that have resulted in at least 156 deaths.

European countries have been pressing the United States, China and India to agree to halve emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, but China and India blocked such an accord in a pre-summit meeting Tuesday.

The United States has been noncommittal as well to a variety of climate change proposals floated by European leaders. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the Obama administration was concentrating its efforts on persuading Congress to adopt climate change legislation. The House of Representatives has approved a bill, but the Senate has yet to act.

"I think in many ways success for us is going to be getting something through Congress," Gibbs said.

On Thursday, Obama will direct a meeting of the Major Economies Forum, a 17-nation group that accounts for nearly 80 percent of greenhouse-gas production. Aides and analysts, however, downplayed the likelihood of any breakthroughs.

After a two-day trip to Moscow, Obama arrived in Rome Wednesday morning and met with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. Obama then flew to L'Aquila for the opening of the summit with the leaders of France, Italy, Britain, Canada, Russia, Japan and Germany.

The Italian government is holding the summit in L'Aquila, a town of about 70,000 people in the Apennine mountains, to focus attention on rebuilding efforts after the region was struck by a major earthquake on April 6. About 300 people were killed and tens of thousands remain homeless.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was due to escort Obama on a tour of L'Aquila's shattered city center Wednesday afternoon.

Since the April quake, this geologically unstable region has been plagued by a series of aftershocks, fraying nerves in an already jittery population and raising doubts about whether L'Aquila is the best place for leaders of the world's top industrial nations to meet under one roof.

On Friday, a 4.1-magnitude temblor rattled buildings and triggered car alarms. Although no one was hurt and no damage reported, civil defense officials said the epicenter was about a half-mile from the police barracks in L'Aquila where the main summit meetings will be held.

The tremor prompted Italian authorities to acknowledge, for the first time, that they have prepared an evacuation plan to airlift world leaders from L'Aquila if necessary during the three-day summit. Italian officials previously downplayed the risks, noting that the concrete-reinforced police barracks had survived the April quake intact and that there was nothing to worry about.

"To cause problems, there would need to be an earthquake that has never before been recorded in L'Aquila's history," Guido Bertolaso, chief of Italy's civil protection agency, told reporters.

The 5.8-magnitude quake on April 6 crumpled thousands of buildings in the region. An estimated 55,000 people remain homeless, living in tent cities in L'Aquila and the surrounding area, or in hotels 70 miles away, along the Adriatic Sea.

Berlusconi has pledged to find permanent housing for all quake victims before the arrival of winter, when temperatures in the mountains dip into the single digits. Construction workers are rushing to fix damaged buildings and install prefabricated houses, but L'Aquila's displaced are getting increasingly anxious.

"They have to take care of us before the winter comes," said Domenico Piccinini, 46, a bar owner who is living with 1,070 other people in a tent camp about a mile from where the summit will be held. "To spend December in a tent in L'Aquila is just not possible."

Piccinini said having the summit nearby has slowed the pace of recovery. Reconstruction was complicated enough, he said, without factoring in the preparations for a major international conference.

"Put it this way: Before the earthquake, had anybody suggested having the G-8 here, they would have been considered crazy," said Piccinini, whose quake-damaged home was condemned by authorities. "They can't even organize a big concert here."

Italy originally planned to host the summit at La Maddalena, a small island and luxury resort off the northern coast of Sardinia. But officials said it might send the wrong message for world leaders to gather at such a swanky spot while more than 50,000 Italians remained homeless in this region.

Italian authorities are betting that a side benefit of holding the summit in the mountains is that the remote location will make it more difficult for anti-globalization demonstrators to disrupt the G-8 summit. Road access to L'Aquila has been sharply curtailed this week, with police manning checkpoints and highway overpasses all the way to Rome, 60 miles away.

Berlusconi has visited L'Aquila more than 15 times since the earthquake to reassure residents. Several residents and aid workers in L'Aquila said they disagreed politically with the prime minister, but admired him for cutting the red tape and prodding the bureaucracy to hasten the region's recovery.

"He's a strange guy, but he's a genius at getting things done," said Annalisa Signorile, a civil protection worker at the Piazza D'Armi tent camp in central L'Aquila.

All told, Italy is trying to raise $42 million in international donations to restore monuments, churches and other historic structures in the region.

Staff writer Michael Fletcher and wire services contributed to this report.

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