Nearly 70 people, including 30 immigrants, 19 policemen and 17 Italians were injured in the clashes, which started on Thursday after two Africans – from Togo and Nigeria – were shot at with air rifles by locals.
The shooting set off two nights of rioting in the town of Rosarno in the southern Calabria region, with immigrants saying they were sick of being treated like “animals”, living in squalid conditions and being paid rock bottom wages for picking fruit and vegetables.
On Thursday, hundreds of immigrants, most of them from sub-Saharan Africa, staged an angry demonstration against the shooting, setting fire to cars and rubbish bins, smashing shop windows and throwing rocks at police.
They carried placards which read “We are not animals” and “Italians are racist”.
Locals retaliated on Friday, beating immigrants with iron bars and trying to run them over with cars and, in one case, a bulldozer.
Two immigrants were injured after being shot in the legs with shotguns. Gangs of Italian men carried out “manhunts”, looking for Africans to beat up, the local media reported. One young African man was taken to hospital for emergency brain surgery after being struck on the head.
About 2,000 migrant workers held a sit-in in the centre of Rosarno while Italians blocked roads with barricades and called for the foreigners to be expelled.
The attacks continued on Saturday, with a group of men in a car shooting another African man with an air rifle near the town of Gioia Tauro, a few miles from Rosarno.
Thousands of illegal immigrants, or “clandestini”, have poured into Italy in recent years, with the authorities turning a blind eye to their lack of official documentation.
In the south of the country they are employed on farms and in orchards, picking fruit and vegetables for as little as 25 euros a day.
They take the jobs that Italians shun. Some of them are qualified as engineers and teachers, while others are asylum seekers and political refugees.
Many live rough in tents pitched in abandoned factories, with no lavatories, running water or electricity.