By Naomi O'Leary
ROME (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters furious about high unemployment and a political class they regard as corrupt rallied in central Rome on Wednesday demanding the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta's government.
With the highest debt burden in the euro zone after Greece, Italy - mired in its longest post-war recession - is closely watched by financial markets and European partners as a flashpoint for instability in the bloc.
Thousands of Italians have marched in cities across the country over the last nine days in protests fuelled by falling incomes, unemployment above 12 percent and over 40 percent among people below 25.
"The ruling class is made up of thieves and mafiosi, and they are destroying our country! We are better than this ... Out out out!" Danilo Calvani, a farmer who has emerged as one of the leader of the protests shouted to the cheering crowd in the Piazza del Popolo.
Attempts to address Italy's economic woes have been held up by squabbling between the coalition partners since the left and right were forced into an awkward alliance to end a political stalemate in April.
The wave of "pitchfork" protests, which began among a loosely organized group of farmers in Sicily, has prompted President Giorgio Napolitano to warn Italy could be plunged into violent social unrest unless the government swiftly introduced reforms to help struggling citizens.
About 3,000 people attended the Rome rally, fewer than expected after some original leaders of the movement refused to endorse the event, saying they feared it could be infiltrated by violent protesters.
Ringed by police, the crowd waved Italian flags while leaders of the movement from around Italy gave angry speeches blaming the government for impoverishing the country.
"We do not want to be ruled by this government anymore. They don't represent us, they don't listen to us, they only steal and that's it. We want new elections," said protester Valerio Lorusso, 41, a farmer from Foggia in southern Italy.
The pitchfork protests have taken on increasingly Eurosceptic tones, with some blaming Europe for years of austerity and economic hardship. The movement has won support from several far-right groups, and several speakers and those in the crowd said Italy should abandon the euro.
One banner read "Dear old Lira, you were worth half but you went twice as far!" and several in the crowd said they wanted a return to Italy's former currency.
"Never before have policies so impoverished the people. If it continues like this we are finished with Europe," said Daniele Iamilli, 42, a security guard from Rome.
Members of Casapound, a neo-fascist group whose deputy leader was sentenced to three months in prison for tearing down the EU flag from the European Commission headquarters in Rome on Saturday, were among those protesting in the square.
National data released this week showing almost one in three Italians risk poverty or social exclusion underlined the scale of a crisis that has fuelled disillusionment with the government and state institutions.
The 5-Star Movement led by comic Beppe Grillo, who has said Italians should be polled on whether to exit the euro, took a quarter of votes in its first national election this year and has forced Italy's traditional parties to address skepticism towards the currency and union.
Letta has warned of the risk of a surge of support for parties opposed to the euro in elections for the European Parliament in May 2014.
(Editing by Pravin Char)