Italian police arrest 5 in terrorist attack plot

Men's behavior in basilica raised officers' suspicions

August 21, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ROME - Five men in the northern Italian city of Bologna were arrested after their behavior inside a basilica aroused police officers' suspicions that they were plotting a terrorist attack, Italian law enforcement officials said yesterday.

The men, who were arrested Monday morning, included four Moroccans, according to the officials. Police at the San Petronio Basilica, which is one of Italy's Gothic treasures, had been on alert because it contains a fresco with a depiction of the prophet Muhammad among demons in hell that has drawn complaints from Muslims.

The arrests seemed to underscore the persistent jitters about terrorism in Italy and the intensifying vigilance of law enforcement officials as the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches.

In recent months, security around the Vatican has tightened, and tourists at some Vatican destinations have reported lengthening delays at security checkpoints.

Two weeks ago, the Italian secret service agency sent a report to Parliament warning that the country remained at "an elevated risk" of attacks by Islamic fundamentalists.

The five men in Bologna, one of them an Italian art historian whose name was not released, were arrested after they were spotted using a video camera to shoot tape of the fresco that depicts Muhammad in hell and a medieval-era crucifix on the main altar. They told police that they were tourists.

But law enforcement officials said the focus of the men's attention, along with other aspects of their conversations and behavior, prompted concern.

"It is clear they were checking the lay of the land and filming it while making hostile and aggressive comments in a place of worship," said Paolo Giovagnoli, a prosecutor in the case.

Officials said they transcribed and translated what the four Moroccan men were saying while the video camera was on. According to that transcript, one of them said, "What bin Laden does is what needs doing here." Other comments suggested that the men were engaged in some kind of secret mission.

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