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Culture

Restoration of Roman city of Pompeii begins

An EU-funded project to restore the ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii in southern Italy has begun. The EU also intends to protect conservation funds from the mafia.

A 105-million-euro ($142.05-million) restoration of the Roman city of Pompeii has been launched. The EU is contributing 41.8 million euros to the project which should be completed by 2015.

The EU also said it would seek to protect conservation funds from the mafia.

The announcement came a day after police arrested a restorer on suspicion of pocketing hugely inflated fees for work at the crumbling UNESCO world heritage site.

Ancient Pompeii was buried in ash and lava when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79. The site is 25 kilometers down the coast from the city of Naples and attracts more than 2.5 million tourists a year. It is Italy's second most visited attraction after the Colosseum in Rome.

The volcanic ash helped preserve the town's villas, market places, paved streets and temples, which were excavated from the 18th century onwards. But years of general neglect, mismanagement and lack of funds have since led to structural collapse.

EU Regional Affairs Commissioner Johannes Hahn said he had taken an interest in launching the restoration plan since the 2010 collapse of the House of the Gladiators, used by the warriors before fights in the nearby amphitheatre.

The new funds will be put toward strengthening crumbling Roman villas, restoring damaged frescoes and improving video surveillance across the 44-hectare site.

The money will also pay for "a variety of measures to protect itself from the influence of organised crime - the Camorra - which infects many parts of the region," the European Commission said. The Camorra, the local mafia, has a strong base in and around nearby Naples, the largest city in southern Italy.

Investigation launched

In 2008, Pompeii was declared by the Italian government to be in a state of emergency. Italian Marcello Fiori was appointed by Silvio Berlusconi, the then prime minister, as special commissioner in charge of the site and tasked with preventing further degradation.

In charge of a 79-million-euro fund, Fiori is now accused of abuse of office and suspected of paying massively inflated prices for restoration work to local companies, in some cases up to 400 percent of the budget. One contract originally priced at 449,882 euros ended up costing almost 5 million euros, prosecutors said.

Five other people are under investigation, including a former director of restoration and three engineers.

Separately, but indicative of the fragile state of Italy's heritage, a piece of a 16th century fresco fell from the ceiling of the Uffizi gallery in Florence on Wednesday during maintenance work in one of the museum corridors. A museum statement said the restoration operation would take around 10 days.

jm/msh (Reuters, AP)