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Italy minister causes stir over Palio comments

Image: Palio horse race
In this photo from the Palio horse race on July 2, the horses of the Leocorno and Aquila neighborhoods collide. Italy's tourism minister is causing a flap for likening the nation's popular Palio horse races to Spain's bullfights for exploiting animals. Paolo Lazzeroni / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The city of Siena's famed bareback horse race, the Palio, is a big tourist draw in Tuscany, but Italy's tourism minister said it amounts to cruelty to animals and suggested it's time to end the centuries-old spectacles.

Minister Michela Brambilla, appointed by Premier Silvio Berlusconi to promote Italy, blasted such generally cherished traditions at a news conference in Rome on Thursday.

Her suggestion immediately irked prominent members of Berlusconi's conservative coalition, already frayed by weeks of political squabbling, and several hours later she issued a statement insisting that she hadn't demanded the Palio to be banned.

At the news conference, Brambilla praised the Spanish region of Catalonia for banning bullfights last month and said it was time for Italy to review its own pageantry that might exploit animals.

Siena draws tens of thousands of visitors each summer with runnings of the Palio race at breakneck speed, when jockeys, sporting colorful medieval symbols of 17 fiercely competitive neighborhoods, whip their mounts around a dirt-covered oval track converted from the main cobblestone square.

Falls by horses aren't rare, and sometimes the animals have had to be killed because of their injuries.

"If Catalonia has given up the 'corrida' (bullfights), we could can give up some Palio" races, Brambilla told reporters.

She lamented that several towns have traditions she said exploits horses, donkeys and other animals and ventured that Italy would benefit from what she called an "animal friendly" image.

On Thursday night, Sky TG 24 TV, which had broadcast her remarks, reported that the minister later issued a statement saying she hadn't specifically called for the Palio's abolition.

No one answered the phone at the Tourism Ministry Thursday night.

Siena's mayor, Maurizio Cenni, called Brambilla's remarks "incredible" and a "shame" for Italy.

Cenni is from the opposition left, but Berlusconi's own conservative allies quickly mounted a protest. Sen. Gianvittore Vaccari said he was "surprised and perplexed" by the tourism minister's remarks, and Berlusconi's senate whip, Maurizio Gasparri, praised the Palio as an expression of "healthy popular culture," the Italian news agency Apcom reported.

The hotly contested race is no stranger to protests.

Pro-animal lobbies, which have long called for an end to the Palio, rushed to praise Bambilla.

And last month, on the eve of the Palio's first running this summer, right-wing groups condemned this year's official banner for featuring Islamic, Jewish and Christian symbols.