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EU: Italy Opens Task Force To Probe Letter-Bomb Campaign

Two European Parliament members yesterday became the latest targets of a string of letter bombs mailed to European Union politicians. At least six such packages have been received and others intercepted in the last three weeks. Authorities suspect anarchists are behind the bombs, most of which have been sent from the Italian city of Bologna. Now, Italy is to set up a European task force to curb anarchist unrest.

Prague, 6 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Pat Cox, the president of the European Parliament, has dubbed it a "criminal conspiracy against democracy."

The letter-bomb campaign started with a package sent to Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, in late December. The parcel, containing a book, burst into flames when Prodi opened it. He was uninjured.
So at the moment, yes, we're all being very careful.... We think twice about opening jiffy bags from Bologna at the moment.

Then it was the turn of Jean Claude Trichet, the European Central Bank chairman, and the heads of two European Union crime-fighting agencies based in The Hague. Those letter bombs were all defused -- unlike two of the three that surfaced yesterday.

One was sent to the constituency office of Gary Titley, a senior British member of the European Parliament (MEP), and burst into flames when opened by his wife. The other caught fire in the Brussels office of Hans-Gert Poettering, a senior German conservative MEP.

No one was injured in either incident -- and another suspicious letter, sent to a Spanish MEP, was intercepted and sent for tests.

David Harley, a spokesman for Cox, noted the similarity between yesterday's packages and the one sent to Prodi. Harley said the package sent to Poettering and that addressed to the Spanish deputy "were the same size, were postmarked 22 December 2003, and were posted from Bologna. And [it] would seem to fit the packing of packages that were sent to several European organizations over the last 10 days."

That's why the police are focusing on Bologna, from where most of the letter bombs have been posted.

Suspicion is also falling on a group identified as the Informal Anarchist Federation. The group took responsibility for two small bombs that exploded in garbage containers outside Prodi's house a few days before he opened the parcel bomb. The group said these were aimed at "the apparatus of control that is repressive and leading the democratic show that is the new European order."

Little is known about the group. Another group with a similar name -- the Federation of Italian Anarchists -- has denounced the letter-bomb campaign, suggesting it's a plot to discredit anarchists and justify their repression.

Italy is now to set up a European task force to curb anarchist unrest. The Interior Ministry says it will coordinate the force, which will involve experts from other European countries, such as France, Greece, and Spain.

Meanwhile, some European politicians are understandably jittery and want better security at the bloc's many institutions. Hans-Gert Poettering said: "I want to give my total support personally and for our group to improve the security, and here we should work together. And I think this is necessary in such a situation. The situation is certainly serious, but we should not exaggerate the situation. We should continue our work, and we should [not allow anyone] to stop what we are believing in."

But there's only so much you can do to prevent such attacks, as John Purvis, a Scottish MEP, noted. "I think these things always have to be reviews, but I think there is a problem with parliaments," he said. "Democratic parliaments are open to the public. We want our constituents to come here as much as possible and visit us and see how their interests are dealt with in the parliament, [and] they're also invited to write in and send in what they want. So it is a difficult balance to achieve, where you provide for security and at the same time keep an open front to your constituents."

Still, Purvis admitted he is more wary of opening letters these days -- especially if they bear a certain postmark. "It's been an ongoing thing for many years," he said. "We've had scares like this. They go up and then they get forgotten for a while, then they go up again. So at the moment, yes, we're all being very careful. We don't readily open packages from Italy, or particularly Bologna. We think twice about opening jiffy bags from Bologna at the moment."