The coming EU elections posed “a real risk” of a spike in xenophobic violence, Italy’s security services have said, but Italy’s prime minister ignored the warning.

Gennaro Vecchione, the head of the Department of Information for Security (DIS), highlighted the threat in his presentation of an annual report in Rome alongside Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte on Thursday (28 February).

There was “a real risk of an increase in episodes of intolerance towards foreigners” and violent assaults by far-right extremists “could intensify with the approach of the European elections” in May, the DIS said.

Neo-fascist groups had shown “a pronounced vitality” in the past year, it noted.

It came amid a spike in xenophobic hate speech that “focused on the opposition to migration” and contained an “accent of strong intolerance towards foreigners” – in developments likely to intensify ahead of the European Parliament (EP) vote, it added.

The DIS report also highlighted the ongoing terrorist threat from Islamist groups such as Isis and Al Qaeda, who were ready to “inspire attacks in Europe” including by people “radicalised” in EU countries.

“This danger has been confirmed by investigative developments that have attested to the use – however sporadic and non-structural – of the channels of illegal immigration for the transfer of sub-Saharan extremists to Europe”, the DIS said.

“Criminal organisations and networks” of people-smugglers, including “attempts of mafia interference in the reception system” of migrants in Italy, were making matters worse, it added.

It also raised the alarm on cyber attacks – which grew by 561 percent in 2018 – mostly aimed at “exfiltrating technology and know-how” from Italian IT, defence, and aerospace firms, in what amounted to a “persistent exposure of Italian companies to industrial espionage initiatives”.

The DIS warning on xenophobic violence has been confirmed by Lunaria, an Italian NGO, which recorded 126 physical assaults of a racist nature, most of them against migrants, last year, compared to 46 in 2017 and 27 in 2016.

The warnings and the xenophobic crime wave coincided with the entry into government of the far-right League party of Italian deputy prime minister and interior minister Matteo Salvini in June last year.

Salvini has blocked rescue ships from docking at Italian ports and has thundered against migrants in speech after speech in xenophobic rhetoric that seems set to form the centrepiece of his EP campaign.

There were 12 shootings, two murders, and 33 physical assaults against migrants in the first two months after he got into office, Lunaria reported.

The DIS report also promised to monitor any “signs of interference” by foreign powers in the EP vote.

Its pledge came after Italian investigative journalists caught out the League party in holding talks in Moscow, in October last year, to obtain €3m in clandestine funding from Russia to help contest the EU election.

But Conte, the Italian prime minister, ignored all that to focus on jihadists and on EU asylum policy instead.

“This [DIS] analysis confirms a great deal about the validity of the two fixed points of the government’s immigration strategy,” he said on Thursday.

The first one was that “no margin of action should be left for human traffickers”, he noted.

The second one was that leaders in other EU states should not believe that “these problems don’t concern them”.

“Up to now, Italy has been left alone and it has saved Europe’s honour,” Conte said, referring to Italy’s pre-Salvini reception of rescued migrants from the central Mediterranean.

If we “do not have a European mechanism of solidarity [for migrant-sharing], Europe will continue … in a spiral of crisis from which we will not emerge,” he said.

“We will continue to fight for the migration problem to be tackled for what it is – a problem for everyone”, he added.

“I think first of all of the jihadist threat, which director Vecchione has already spoken about it, and it is good for the intelligence services to remind us of it – it can not at all be considered exhausted,” Conte said.

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