TARANTO, Italy (Reuters) - More than 100 union activists waving burning flares and throwing eggs stormed the stage where Italian labor leaders were speaking against the closure of the country's largest steel plant on Thursday, forcing police to escort the leaders to safety.
Despite health and environmental concerns, the closure of the ILVA factory, which employs 12,000 people, would be a severe blow to the poor southern city that is, like the rest of Italy, mired in recession and facing double-digit unemployment.
Last week's court order to partially close the plant had unified Italy's often litigious Rome-based unions and even opposing political factions to fight to keep its doors open. But local residents do not all agree.
As the leader of the nation's biggest metal workers' union spoke, workers from the plant belonging to a rival union and members of far-left community centers shoved aside protective barriers and drove a small truck into the crowd, shouting "You do not represent us!" and "You are the ruin of Italy!"
The protesters stormed the stage where the union leaders spoke, waving orange smoke bombs and flares.
In a communiqué read from atop of the small truck, they criticized the national unions for placing too little importance on health concerns and being servile to the factory owners.
Taranto prosecutors last week ordered the partial closure of the plant, one of the biggest in Europe and one of the few large industrial sites in southern Italy, to protect public health.
Magistrates, who put eight of the company's executives under house arrest, said the plant's fumes and dust particles endangered the health of thousands of workers and nearby residents.
The ruling for the shutdown came after the presentation of a long inquiry ordered by the magistrates into whether dioxin and other chemicals pumped from the plant caused abnormal rates of cancer and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
The study linked 386 deaths among the local population over 13 years to ILVA's fumes. The majority were living in two low-income neighborhoods close to the plant.
Environment Minister Corrado Clini said on Thursday that the government on Friday would adopt a 336-million-euro ($407.4 million) plan - already announced last week - to clean up the area around the plant to address what he called "a national emergency."
(Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Roger Atwood)