ROME – Students protesting state university budget cuts clashed Tuesday with riot police who used tear gas and police vans to seal off much of Rome's historic center to stop the demonstrators from reaching Parliament.
There were no reports of serious injuries or damage. Less violent protests were staged in cities across the country.
The demonstrations came hours before lawmakers approved the contested reform bill many students and professors say will give the private sector too much involvement in the state university system. Protesters claim the funding cuts mean faculty positions will go unfilled.
The protests turned briefly violent as students — about 3,000 in all with a core group of about 200 — poured onto the main thoroughfare of the historic center, throwing eggs, tomatoes and smoke bombs at police.
At one point, protesters tried to overturn a police van. Riot police charged after them, using tear gas.
The heavy police presence, designed to prevent the protesters from reaching the square outside the Chamber of Deputies, blocked bus and tram routes for hours and jammed traffic on the main roads leading into the center.
Romans and tourists alike were further inconvenienced when the students then marched on Rome's main train station and occupied several tracks, the ANSA news agency reported.
Despite the problems, many onlookers said they understood the students' concerns.
"Given the situation, I'm hoping for a new '68," said Nicola Roncolli, a 67-year-old retiree, referring to the massive student protests of 1968. He said his detours around a rain-soaked city center were a "necessary evil" and that he would have be marching alongside the students except that he's not well.
After the clashes, while the protesters retreated the eggshells, squashed tomatoes and other garbage remained on the streets.
"They want to keep us out of sight because they know they're wrong," said protester Giacomo Luni, a student at Rome's La Sapienza university.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi brushed off the protests, saying "serious" students were home studying. He defended the reforms as necessary to modernize education in Italy.
Similar protests snarled other cities, including Milan, Turin, Naples, Venice, Palermo and Bari. In Genoa, students protested under the slogan "they block our future, we block the cities."