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Leaders Gather in Earthquake-Shattered Italian Town

The Group of Eight summit is taking place in L'Aquila, a town still shaken by aftershocks from April's brutal earthquake - Italy's worst in 30 years - and full of criticism that the meeting will disrupt rebuilding efforts.
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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.

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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.


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