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no hoops allowed in chaos of G8 logistics

July 3, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in L’Aquila, Italy

Published on FT: July 3 2009

Top secret: a mobile basketball hoop specially installed for Barack Obama to enjoy during next week’s Group of Eight summit of world leaders is strictly off-limits to unauthorised personnel, the heavily armed Italian police guards warned.

Such is the chaotic state of preparations for the July 8-10 summit in a police barracks on the edge of the quake-torn city of L’Aquila that scores of reporters were kept penned for hours outside in a temporary press centre waiting for Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister and host, to speak.

Except, that is, for two frustrated correspondents of the Financial Times and The Guardian, who found an unguarded side entrance into the sprawling complex of the Ministry of Finance Police College and spent an hour mingling with workers before finally being captured at the hoop.

“Excuse me. What are you doing?” asked one of two guards, armed with submachineguns and pistols strapped to their thighs. Identities checked and digital photographs of the sensitive hoop deleted, the two reporters were escorted back to the pen.

With an attention to detail that Italy’s billionaire premier also devotes to his lavish private parties, Mr Berlusconi is personally supervising the near-impossible logistics of hosting 39 heads of government and international organisations at L’Aquila – along with 3,500 journalists, 15,000 guards and thousands of accompanying staff.

“It’s a bit of an ambitious plan but we can do it,” assured Mr Berlusconi, anxious that the Silvio Show will trump the media’s attention to judicial investigations into the alleged procuring of prostitutes for his parties by a business acquaintance suspected of corruption in acquiring health sector contracts.

Inside, the complex scaffolding and lighting were being erected, miles of cables laid, pot plants and trees shuttled about and stands erected for the media. Workers asked each other (and the two reporters) for directions, as officials whizzed around in electric cars.

But officials are probably right to hope that everything will be all right on the night, and in keeping with the sober backdrop of a global financial crisis and a ruined medieval city.

The summit was to be held on a small island off Sardinia, but Mr Berlusconi switched the venue to bring attention to the city after the April 6 quake killed nearly 300 people and made over 50,000 homeless.

In a reminder of the risks, L’Aquila was again rocked by a big tremor on Friday, sending people back into the streets.

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