Silvio Berlusconi wants G8 to be in earthquake-stricken city of L'Aquila

Aftershocks are still rippling through the region, and streets are strewn with the rubble of fallen buildings, but Silvio Berlusconi is undaunted. Yesterday, he unveiled an unlikely plan to switch one of the most exacting, high-profile global summits of the year to the ruins of L'Aquila, the earthquake-stricken city in central Italy still struggling to cope with the privations of its own inhabitants.

"What venue could be more appropriate?" Berlusconi asked yesterday after deciding to move this summer's G8 summit from the Mediterranean island of La Maddalena to the city devastated by the 6 April quake which killed 295 people.

Bild: Berlusconi

Moving the venue would send a "message of hope" to the entire region of Abruzzo, Berlusconi said. "I think it could work out very well."

Officials cautioned that the other heads of government would need to be consulted. But the Italian prime minister appeared determined that Obama, Merkel, Sarkozy, Brown and the others should hold their three-day meeting in a rubble-strewn city of undulating thoroughfares, cracked viaducts and devastated hotels, ringed with camps housing tens of thousands of homeless people.

About 5,000 people including delegates, security officials and accredited media representatives are expected, and many more will be needed to feed and accommodate them.

Berlusconi said the meetings could be held in an academy just outside L'Aquila for training non-commissioned officers of the militarised revenue guard.

Last night was the first in 16 days without an earthquake aftershock in the area. "I hope the government, in adopting this decision, has carefully weighed the risks," said the opposition leader, Dario Franceschini.

One minister, Altero Matteoli, admitted to reporters that the plan went "beyond my imagination". He had thought it "implausible", he confessed, but went on: "The experts have said it is possible."

G8 summits bring together the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the US, and are renowned for being logistically fraught, from a security as well as diplomatic viewpoint.

The last time Italy hosted the G8 was in Genoa in 2001, an event scarred by a vicious confrontation between police and demonstrators which left one dead and scores injured. Berlusconi said yesterday that the choice of L'Aquila might help in this regard, saying he did not believe anti-globalisation protesters "would have the will or the heart to stage violent demonstrations" in Abruzzo.

L'Aquila has a number of other attractions as a venue for Berlusconi. His hands-on response to the earthquake has so far played well with the electorate.

After spending three days in the area overseeing the relief effort and comforting the homeless, his approval rating jumped four percentage points, according to a poll for the website of the daily La Repubblica. Though foreign media highlighted Berlusconi's characteristically tactless remark that the homeless should think of themselves as being on a "camping weekend", his slip was barely reported in Italy itself.

Moving the summit to L'Aquila would allow the government to divert towards reconstruction some of €220m (£196m) earmarked for the summit. Laden with debt, Berlusconi's cabinet was struggling to cut spending before the earthquake struck.

Doubts had already been expressed about La Maddalena as a venue; there were reports the island's location, off Sardinia, had created logistical difficulties for planners. In any case, said Berlusconi, with the world in recession, it "would have been too beautiful". He announced the change of venue, astounding friends and foes alike, when he emerged from a special cabinet meeting in L'Aquila yesterday.