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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 19:09 GMT
Murder deepens Italy's divisions
Tens of thousands gathered in Bologna to show their respects
Tens of thousands gathered in Bologna to show their respects
Trade unions in Italy have spurned an appeal by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to abandon a proposed general strike following the assassination of a labour ministry adviser.

It was an attempt to spread panic and anxiety, to suffocate every peaceful debate, to create a deep fissure in Italian society

Claudio Scajola
Interior Minister
Marco Biagi, a senior aide who had drawn up proposals for dramatic labour reform, was shot dead as he returned home on Tuesday night.

His killing, widely believed to be politically motivated, has raised fears of a resurgence of the political violence that plagued Italy during the 1970s and 1980s.

A claim that the attack was carried out by the left-wing Red Brigades has not yet been verified.

The murder comes at a time of growing tensions between the country's right-wing government and the unions, who fear the proposals will give employers far too much freedom to fire workers.

"In honour of Marco Biagi, a man of dialogue, we have decided to present a formal invitation to the social partners to resume negotiations immediately," said Mr Berlusconi, making clear however that his government intends to press ahead with reform.

But Italy's three biggest unions rebuffed the invitation, announcing that they would meet next week to set a date for a general strike in April.

They also called a nationwide strike for two hours on Wednesday to demonstrate against Mr Biagi's death. Tens of thousands gathered in the centre of Bologna, where Mr Biagi lived, to pay their respects in a rally organised by the unions.

State of shock

Mr Biagi, a 51-year-old economist and law professor, was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle outside his home on Tuesday evening.

Marco Biagi
Marco Biagi wanted dramatic changes to the workers' statute
A crudely drawn symbol of the Red Brigades - an extremist left-wing urban guerrilla movement which was active in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s - was found scratched into the wall of Mr Biagi's house.

A man claiming to represent the movement telephoned a local newspaper and said the group had carried out the attack, but police have not confirmed whether the call was genuine or a hoax.

Correspondents say the assassination has thoroughly rocked the country.

Interior Minister Claudio Scajola cut short a visit to the United States to return to Italy, where he told an emergency session of parliament that the attack had been designed "to create a deep fissure in Italian society".

The country's main labour leaders were quick to denounce the attack, and Pope John Paul II has also joined the groundswell of outrage, branding the assassination "barbarous".

The Italian Football Federation also decided to observe a minute's silence at all matches as a mark of respect for the murdered adviser.

Mr Biagi is to be given a state funeral.

Terrorist legacy

A few weeks ago, the Justice Ministry warned that Italy could witness a revival of politically-motivated terrorism.

On 26 February, a bomb exploded near the Interior Ministry in Rome.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Italy was plagued by domestic attacks from both right-wing and left-wing extremists, which killed hundreds and left a legacy of lingering political hostility.

In 1999, after years of relative calm, top labour ministry adviser Massimo D'Antona was killed in an attack allegedly carried out by the Red Brigades.

The group carried out many attacks in the 1970s - most notoriously the 1978 killing of former Premier Aldo Moro.

The BBC's David Chazan
"It was a gangland style hit"
See also:

03 Mar 02 | Europe
Italy's left confronts Berlusconi
03 Jun 00 | Europe
Red Brigades fugitive arrested
13 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Italy
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