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Thousands gather for Rome protest

Organisers said almost 2 million people attended the labour rally  

ROME, Italy -- Hundreds of thousands of Italians have protested at government labour reforms in Rome.

Police said just under one million people had gathered for the mass protest, while union organisers put the estimate at closer to 2 million.

Central Rome was blocked off to all traffic and there was a heavy police presence as more than 9,00 buses and 60 trains had brought members of Italy's largest union, the CGIL, to the capital.

Hundreds of anti-globalisation protesters mingled with the crowds of unionist and non-unionist marchers, who began to disperse by mid-afternoon.

The main focus of the march was the government's plans for radical labour market reform. However, the protest was recast this week as a demonstration against "terrorism" following the assassination of government adviser Marco Biagi.

Italians shocked by Biagi's killing. CNN's Alessio Vinci reports (March 20)

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Biagi, a highly respected economist who had worked with both the previous centre-left administration and the current conservative government on labour issues, was gunned down in front of his home on Tuesday as he bicycled back from work.

Waving banners reading "Terrorism kills our rights" and "Don't touch Article 18" -- a reference to the labour reform the government wants to push through -- observers said protesters, who had gathered early at the final point of the march, appeared determined but peaceful.

"We are many and we are here to join the fight against terrorism and to defend our rights," said Sergio Cofferati, the leader of CGIL, as he launched the protest.

The shooting of Biagi raised fears of a return to the politically motivated violence that scarred Italy in the 1970s and 1980s.

An offshoot of the Red Brigades, a militant group which carried out political killings in Italy in that period, claimed responsibility for the Biagi murder saying it had "executed" him because of his proposals for reforming labour markets.

The killing came at time of heightened social and political tension in Italy, with unions threatening a paralysing general strike to show their anger at reforms which would make it easier to hire and fire workers.

Saturday's march is one of several planned in the days and weeks ahead which pit the power of the unions -- representing some 12 million workers -- against the government.

While unionists were among the first to condemn Biagi's killing, the death and its timing left the labour movement in a delicate position.

On Friday, the day Biagi was buried, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called on the unions to rejoin negotiations over the reforms, which a week ago broke down completely after the government said it would make no more concessions.


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