ROME -- Boris smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, washes with polluted Tiber River water and relieves himself in the bushes along the river's bank. He learned to pick tourists' pockets soon after he could walk.

His sister, Yanna, just as grubby and ragged, haunts restaurants in the evenings to hawk flowers stolen from graves. In the daytime she begs handouts.

Boris is 8, Yanna 12. Both live in a trailer caravan with their tribe of Gypsies, moving from one encampment to another as police, motivated by complaints from nearby residents, chase them away.

The two skinny urchins, caught in a recent police raid, are classic examples of the Gypsy children whose fathers each day drive them from camps along the river and the city's outskirts to the center of Rome to prey on pedestrians and tourists.

Their exploits -- and the Municipal Council's decision to build a permanent camp on the eastern edge of Rome for some of the 15,000 Gypsies who have invaded the Italian capital in recent years -- triggered four days of protests recently by thousands of residents who complained that they still need basic services such as electricity and running water themselves.

Bearing banners reading, "Take the Gypsies to the zoo," "Settle them in the Vatican" and "Never another Gypsy in Italy, or we cut their heads off," the protesters used old tires and furniture to block main roads and occupy a railway line.

They not only made headlines but kindled fears of an upsurge in racism in a country with 2 million foreigners, 70 percent of them Africans.

At the height of the protest, 11 barefoot Gypsy children, organized by Gypsy leader Adamo di Pippo, 44, carried huge placards into St. Peter's Square asking Pope John Paul II to "help us against the protesters." Police detained the children and di Pippo, who had wrapped himself in an Italian flag.

While environmentalists and militant left-wingers portrayed the nomads as victims of a prejudiced society, angry residents carried their protests to the Town Hall under the slogan, "We are not racists, but no dirty Gypsies in our area."

Rome, one of the world's major tourist centers, has long been attractive to Gypsy beggars, who sit cross-legged on the pavement nursing babies or deformed children as an added appeal for charity.

The Gypsies also sell roasted chestnuts from mobile braziers or chalk religious portraits on the sidewalks, leaving open a collection box with the plea, "I'm hungry."

Police say the older Gypsy children work in packs, descending on pedestrians, pleading and whining for money. While three or four hang onto the victim's arms, a fifth expertly lifts the wallet or valuables from pockets and handbags.

"They are quick, smart and well-coordinated," a policeman said. "When caught, they weep and beg just like any other child. But only one in every 50 is ever caught, and most of the time the victims don't realize until much later that they have been pickpocketed."

Judge Gianfranco Dosi said half the population of Casal del Marmo prison are Gypsies between 14 and 18 years old. Italian authorities release thieves under age 14 because they are legally considered "not responsible for their crimes."

The law often is exploited by unscrupulous Gypsy adults. Last year during the trial of 13 Gypsy men in Milan, the court was told that Gypsies purchase children from poor families in the Balkan countries, then teach them how to sneak into an apartment or pick a pocket.

The prosecution detailed how the children were trained in pickpocketing "schools." Broken mirrors and small bells were hidden in coat pockets used for practice. A clumsy child would cut his fingers on the mirror; if the bell rang, the child was beaten.

By the banks of the Tiber River, near the Marconi Bridge, the Gypsies live in trailers and ramshackle huts between abandoned cars, garbage dumps and river reeds. Almost all of the cars in the encampment are new or near-new Mercedes and BMWs.

"We need the cars to drive the children to school and to fetch water," said Hamidovic Nedzad, at age 29 considered "the king" of the riverside tribe.

Nedzad denies that his tribe steals. "Maybe there are some thieves among us," he said. "They go to the railway station and Via Veneto and pick out a foreigner as target. Believe me, the Italians are never pickpocketed. We love Italy."