Italy launches jihadist hunt after US tip

ROME (TIP): Italy is looking for five terror suspects after a tip-off from the United States about possible jihadist attacks on tourist sites in Rome and Milan, Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said on Nov 19.

The US embassy in Rome posted a security warning on its website identifying some of Italy’s best-loved landmarks as “potential targets”, including St Peter’s Square, La Scala and the Duomo cathedral in Milan.

It also said churches, synagogues, restaurants, theatres, and hotels in both cities could be targeted.

“Terrorist groups may possibly utilise similar methods used in the recent Paris attacks,” it added.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had provided five names to the Italian authorities but the agency did not give specific details on any plots, according to Italian media.

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“Since yesterday afternoon, our security forces have been working to find five people,” Gentiloni told Rai 3 television, without elaborating.

He added that Italy was already primed for the possibility of an attack.

“The minister of the interior has explained many times that we are at a very high level of alert covering symbolic sites, places where people gather, from stadiums to cathedrals, and St Peter’s in particular, which were, among others, the places highlighted by the FBI,” Gentiloni said.

“We always take such signals of alarm very seriously, especially when they come from the United States.”

He stressed that the US warnings did not amount to formal advice to Americans not to travel to Italy — a step which would have serious repercussions for the country’s large tourist industry — but a simple reminder of the need to be vigilant.

He also appealed to the media not to stoke public fears. “We must not become prisoners of this alarm because that would be a gift to Daesh,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

Meanwhile, local media reported that Italian police had arrested two Syrians trying to travel to Malta on false passports who had pictures related to the Islamic State jihadist group on their phones.

The two men, aged 19 and 30, were apprehended at Bergamo airport near Milan late Wednesday, the reports said.

Italy reacted to last week’s gun and suicide attacks on Paris, which left 129 people dead, by deploying 700 extra troops in Rome, on top of 1,300 already involved in a highly-visible “safe streets” operation.

The additional soldiers have been deployed notably on the capital’s underground rail network and at major shopping centres while media reports have suggested the number of sites identified as possible targets has been increased from 90 to 150.

Extra troops have been deployed to train stations and airports while security around Pope Francis has been enhanced with additional checks on people entering the Vatican and an increased number of bodyguards on duty when he did his weekly appearance in St Peter’s square on Wednesday.

The heightened security measures come as Rome is gearing up to host the Jubilee Year of Mercy proposed by the pontiff, which begins in December and is expected to draw millions of tourists.

The prefect of Rome, Franco Gabrielli, urged Italians to “stay cool-headed, without however underestimating” the threats.

Italian media have, in recent months, regularly given high prominence to vague warnings from Islamic State propagandists that they will come to Rome and plant their flag on top of St Peter’s.

Officials have generally played down such threats, insisting they had no knowledge of a specific or credible plot to attack Rome or the Vatican.

Italy has a smaller problem with homegrown jihadists than other Western European countries. Intelligence experts estimate only around 50 Italian residents have gone to fight with IS in Syria and suspected militants appear to be closely monitored.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano revealed on Tuesday that 55 suspected Islamists had been expelled from Italy since the start of the year, including four radical imams. (Source: AFP)

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