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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 18:51 GMT
Italians puzzle over 'cyanide plot'
Italian police guard the US embassy in Rome
Security at the US embassy has been stepped up
Italy has been thrown into confusion by the exposure of what may have been a plot to poison part of Rome's water supply with cyanide.


We are dealing with a phantom menace - like a ghost that you know is hovering near you, but you can't see

Carlo di Blasio, RAI 24
According to Roberto Romagnoli, foreign editor of "Il Messaggero", the Rome newspaper that first carried reports of the alleged plot, people are divided into two camps.

"There are those who think the threat of terrorist attacks is real and those who think it is an exaggeration," Mr Romagnoli said.

"The picture is confusing - we still don't understand what the suspects were planning."

But according to Carlo di Blasio, editor of the all-news TV channel RAI 24, the lack of information is fuelling public fears,

Maps of water system

"The uncertainty itself is extremely unsettling," he said.

People kissing near the Barcaccia fountain in Romes Piazza di Spagna
Life goes on - but Italians are unsure what to make of the story
"We are dealing with a phantom menace - like a ghost that you know is hovering near you, but you can't see."

The Moroccans were detained on Tuesday with four kilos of a cyanide compound, as well as maps of Rome pinpointing the US embassy and charts of the city's water network.

An Italian Government official has been quoted as saying the substance was insufficient to cause any major harm if introduced in Rome's water supply.

The US State Department has also said that its embassy staff were not under any threat.

Leak

But Mr di Blasio says there is a widespread perception that the public is being kept in the dark.


Many people suspect that police are not telling the whole truth

Carlo di Blasio, RAI 24
"Romans learned about the arrest of the suspects through a leak to the press," he told BBC News Online.

"This adds to the climate of fear - many people suspect that police are not telling the whole truth because this could start a panic.

"They conclude that if the whole truth was known, there would be reason to panic."

Experts themselves appear to be divided over the nature of the risk posed by the compound potassium ferrocyanide, found in the possession of the arrested men.

Some say it is hard to produce poison from the compound, which is used in gardening or producing inks and dyes, but is by itself harmless.

However others say it only needs to be brought into contact with strong acid for deadly hydrogen cyanide gas to be released.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"It is possible that they were targeting the US embassy"
The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"There are now fears that a full-blown cyanide attack was planned"
The BBC's Gavin Hewitt
"They had diagrams of the city's water supply"
The BBC's Frances Kennedy
"The group may have been planning a terrorist attack"
See also:

21 Feb 02 | Europe
US dismisses Italy cyanide threat
20 Feb 02 | Europe
'Cyanide attack' foiled in Italy
05 Feb 02 | Europe
Terror suspects on trial in Italy
02 Oct 01 | Europe
US warns of Italy terror attack
11 Dec 01 | Europe
Looking for European al-Qaeda
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