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Wednesday, 3 October, 2001, 19:27 GMT 20:27 UK
Italy responds to US threat warning
Italian police car outside MacDonalds
Police are on high alert at identifiably American buildings
By David Willey in Rome

An official warning from the US State Department that Italy is at high risk of terrorist attack has brought instant reaction in Rome.

Washington has been warning of the vulnerability of identifiably American targets in Italy, such as the Nato military base at Aviano near Venice and embassy buildings.

The interior ministry in Rome says security at all possible US targets in Italy has already been raised to the maximum level.

The Italians are also worried about the safety of their own architectural icons, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, and even the ruins of the Colosseum, the ancient Roman amphitheatre.

Tensions raised

The presence of the former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, who has lived in exile in a suburb of Rome for the past 30 years and who is now the centre of attention as a possible successor to the Taleban regime despite his age and frailty, is another cause for concern.

Maurizio Calvi, Chairman of Italy's Centre for High Studies on Terrorism, said on Italian radio that the presence of the former Afghan king and the fact that some kind of anti-Taleban government in exile was put together in Rome over the past few days was "potentially very dangerous".

Italian police have been placed on maximum alert. Interior Minister Claudio Scajola said security precautions around sensitive US institutions in Italy had in fact already been reinforced from September 11 onwards.

Romes Colosseum
Architectural treasures like the Colosseum could be a target

"Symbols of American Capitalism in Italy" - the phrase used in the State Department warning - could include a number of potential targets.

The two embassies of the United States in Rome, one to the Vatican and one to the Italian State are not the only possibilities.

Security is also increased at consulates in three other larger cities and smaller consular agencies elsewhere.

There are American universities in Rome and Bologna, and thousands of American owned companies, mainly in northern Italy.

No obvious new security measures seemed in evidence since the State Department warning at the 15 McDonald's fast food outlets in Rome on Wednesday.

Earlier this year the American Embassy in Rome was shut down for three days after a security warning. Washington said that extremist groups were planning an attack similar to that carried out on American embassies in East Africa.

Public reassurance

Meanwhile Italy's Health Minister Girolamo Sirchia has tried to reassure public opinion that while the government is fully aware of the dangers of possible biological or chemical attacks, there is no point in being alarmist.

"The story of poisoned water mains or toy planes spreading poison gases in the air is more a myth than anything else.

"There are actually well identified risk situations that the World Health Organisation has been investigating for some time, and which can be handled with good organisation. And that is what we intend to do," he said in Milan.

The World Health Organisation has been recommending since 1993 to get all Western countries to put risk management arrangements in place to deal with this type of attack.

The difference, as usual, is that whereas other countries took the WHO recommendations up at the time, no-one in Italy has ever made any such arrangements.

"But the time has now come to do so," the minister said.

After the American warning, the Interior ministry in Rome appealed to members of the public all over Italy to be vigilant.

It asked that people get in touch with the police immediately to report any unusual activities they observe which might be related to plans for attacks by extremists.

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