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BERLIN (AP) — Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Tuesday sought to allay Italian fears over a government proposal to offer citizenship mainly to German-speakers in a northern Italian region that was formerly part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
After Italian politicians balked at the unilateral proposal, Kurz said the citizenship offer outlined in the coalition government agreement between his Austrian People's party and the populist, right-wing Freedom Party only would be pursued "in close coordination" with Italy.
An undersecretary in Italy's foreign ministry, Benedetto Della Vedova, welcomed the softening of the Austrian position.
He said Italy had read the proposal to grant Austrian citizenship en masse to speakers of German and the Romance language Ladino in the South Tyrol region as a provocative move. Seventy percent of the region's residents speak German, 25 percent Italian and 5 percent Ladino.
South Tyrol, known as Alto Adige in Italian, became part of Italy after World War I, but tension lingered for decades after a post-World War II vote by citizens on whether to remain in Italy or join Austria.
The "remain" vote won, while dissenters relocated to Austria. Still, the post-war agreement to remain part of Italy, which included broad political and economic autonomy, was a long and uneasy one, as South Tyrol politicians with the backing of Austria sought to create more distance from Rome.
An era of secession-driven terrorism that started in the 1960s followed. But even once the violence quieted, decades of resentment by locals toward Italian-speaking visitors ensued, with petty acts of vandalism common.
Italian fears over Austria upsetting a hard-won balance with the region's ethnic minorities were aroused by the citizenship proposal released over the weekend.
The concerns heightened Monday when Werner Neubauer, the Freedom Party official in charge of relations with Alto Adige, said during a visit to Bolzano, in northern Italy, that German- and Ladino-speakers would be able to request Austrian citizenship next year and receive it as soon as early 2019.
Neubauer also said that Italian athletes who received Austrian citizenship could compete for Austria, further stirring emotions, as many of Italy's elite winter sports athletes hail from the mountainous South Tyrol region.
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said the question of double-citizenship would have to be faced "with great delicacy."
Far-right Italian politician Giorgia Meloni warned "hands off Alto Adige," and expressed anger that Austria had "put on the table, unilaterally, the concession of citizenship" after Italy's government had spent "billions of euros of Italian money to pay the German-speaking population in the autonomous region."
Colleen Barry contributed from Milan.
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