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Head of Italy's Lombardy region given police escort as COVID anger mounts


MILAN (Reuters) - The governor of Lombardy, the northern region at the epicentre of Italy's coronavirus outbreak, said on Wednesday that he had been given a police escort after growing criticism of his administration's handling of the crisis.

Lombardy, Italy's richest and most populous region and the motor of its economy, is one of the worst affected areas of the world by the coronavirus, accounting for around half of the country's more than 32,000 dead.

The regional government, controlled by opposition leader Matteo Salvini's anti-immigrant League party, has seen approval ratings plunge amid angry attacks on its response and on health sector reforms by previous League governments that many say left the region badly prepared to face the epidemic.

Regional governor Attilio Fontana, a close Salvini ally, gave no details of the security escort but said the decision to assign one had not been at his request but had been decided by the "relevant authorities".

"I'm sorry for the sake of my family who have been a bit worried," he said in a statement. "Over recent days, there's been too much venom."

"Unfortunately, it's the result of lies told by certain political forces which have poisoned the atmosphere and stirred up this dangerous climate of hatred."

The decision to assign the escort, as Italy has begun to ease lockdown restrictions imposed almost three months ago, highlighted widespread public anger at the handling of both the health crisis and the lockdown measures.

Authorities said Education Minister Lucia Azzolina and Deputy Health Minister Pierpaolo Sileri, had also been assigned security details in recent days.

"We've been collecting dozens and dozens of threats on social media. There are so many of them and they're part of this climate of hatred," Fontana's lawyer Jacopo Pensa was quoted as saying by business daily Il Sole 24 Ore.

As people have begun to emerge from lockdown, authorities have expressed exasperation at widespread flouting of social distancing rules in major centres including Milan, the main city of Lombardy.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Alison Williams)

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