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The mayor of Vicenza, Italy, has rejected a call from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to cancel a vote next month on the future of the Dal Molin airfield.

Achille Variati was quoted in numerous Italian newspapers as saying the Oct. 5 referendum will go forward. He said voters will be asked to express their opinion not on whether the U.S. should be using the land, but if the city should purchase it.

According to reports by dozens of Italian media outlets, Berlusconi had sent Variati a letter essentially stating the vote would be useless. According to a report filed by La Republica, a Turin-based newspaper, he wrote: "… the area is state (federal) property and not for sale. …"

He also said the federal government had reached an agreement to allow the U.S. to use the land and had authority to do so.

That agreement already has been challenged in court. A regional court in Venice issued a ruling in June that agreed with an appeal by a consumer advocacy group that the agreement between the two countries didn’t follow proper procedures. That decision, however, was overturned by the country’s highest appeals court a few weeks later.

The U.S. wants to use the airfield, owned by the Italian military, to construct barracks and offices for soldiers and consolidate the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Only two of the six battalions in the brigade are currently based in Vicenza and there’s no room at Caserma Ederle for any more. The other battalions are located in Germany.

The U.S. says it can base its personnel in Italy only on land owned by the Italian government. So unless the Italian military wants to purchase land elsewhere — an unlikely proposition — Dal Molin is the nearest Italian-owned parcel to Ederle.

Army officials say they have no intention of using the airfield itself and that it couldn’t be used to support airborne operations anyway. They say they’ll continue to use Aviano Air Base, where new multimillion-dollar facilities are finished or nearing completion, for that purpose.

Protesters, some opposed to U.S. foreign policy and others concerned about the impact of the project on the local environment, have actively campaigned against the plan since it came to light a few years ago. They’ve staged a number of protests that have drawn thousands of like-minded people throughout the country.

"No Dal Molin" supporters recently constructed a tower that overlooks the airfield so they could monitor whether construction is started before the Oct. 5 vote.

The center-right government under Berlusconi initially gave the U.S. approval to use the base, but his coalition was later voted out of power. The center-left government that followed under Romano Prodi eventually said Italy would honor the agreement. And Berlusconi has restated his support since regaining power in another federal election.

The 173rd is the only brigade in the Army with units permanently based over such a wide geographic area. Three battalions are based in Bamberg, Germany, and another one in Schweinfurt, Germany.

An Italian contractor has been selected for the project and work on clearing the area of unexploded ordnance continues. The U.S. hopes to have facilities ready to use by the spring of 2012.

Valentina Lehman provided translation for this report.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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