The sun-dappled olive groves of Italy's deep south have become a battleground as riot police and protesters clash over the building of an ambitious gas pipeline.

Tension over the uprooting of centuries-old olive trees to make way for the pipeline boiled over yesterday, as police armed with batons and shields charged hundreds of protesters in an olive grove in the region of Puglia, in the heel of the Italian boot.

The 877km-long Trans Adriatic Pipeline, or TAP, will bring natural gas from Azerbaijan in the Caucasus to Italy, but it has proved controversial.

Protesters have called for it to be re-routed so as to avoid an area where people rely on tourism and olive oil for their livelihoods.

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The clashes broke out near the village of Melendugno, south of the elegant Baroque town of Lecce. Scuffles broke out as police tried to move demonstrators away from the construction site.

Protesters threw stones and bottles at the police and several people were injured. The digging up of the olive trees was suspended but later resumed.

"Our battle is entirely legitimate and we have always wanted it to be peaceful, but the response of the police was disproportionate," said Gianluca Maggiore, one of the protest leaders.

The regional government of Puglia is opposed to the pipeline, with Michele Emiliano, the centre-Left governor, branding it "illegal".

But those objections were overridden by Rome, which says the project will allow Italy to diversify its energy supply.

The pipeline, which will cost an estimated €40 billion, will bring gas from Azerbaijan to Italy via Turkey, Greece and Albania.

An Italian court gave permission on Tuesday for construction work to begin, rejecting calls by campaigners to move the pipeline elsewhere in Puglia.

Around 2000 olive trees will have to transplanted but workers have only a brief window to dig them up.

More than 200 olive trees in Meledugno, southern Italy, will be removed. Photo / AP
More than 200 olive trees in Meledugno, southern Italy, will be removed. Photo / AP