Page last updated at 13:23 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 14:23 UK

Italian soldier deaths stir unease

By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Rome

All the Italian soldiers killed and injured by a bombing in Kabul on Thursday were from the Folgore Parachute regiment, a highly trained and proud unit founded nearly 70 years ago.

The Italian ministry of defence said they had been travelling in two armoured vehicles when a car pulled up alongside and exploded.

One of the soldiers killed had been in Afghanistan for only 24 hours.

Italian soldiers by the site of the blast in Kabul, Afghanistan
Several thousand Italian troops have been deployed to Afghanistan

This is the biggest single loss of life for Italians in Afghanistan since they were sent there in 2004. Italy has 3,200 troops deployed in the country. About 20 Italian military personnel have now lost their lives in the conflict.

There has been immediate condemnation from all political parties in Italy, but the deaths have also re-emphasised wide divisions between centre-left and centre-right coalitions over the Italian mission in Afghanistan.

'Cowardly killers'

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi led the support for the mission. He sent his condolences to the families of the victims saying the troops had died "supporting democracy and freedom in this unfortunate country".

Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa told the Italian senate: "These cowardly killers will not stop us".

An Italian army officer reacts to the news at a barracks in Siena, Italy
Italy's involvement in Afghanistan is less controversial than Iraq

His view was echoed by Italy's Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, who said that Italy was paying a "high price" for the deployment, but that the country must stay in Afghanistan.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said to pull out now would amount to "giving in to terrorists".

But Anna Finocchiaro, president of the opposition Democratic Party in the senate, said the country should now "reflect on the pain this moment has given us" and she called for a "calm discussion" of Italy's foreign troop deployments, including those in Afghanistan.

A colleague went further.

Antonio Di Pietro, who heads the small Italy of Values party, said that it was now necessary to have a discussion about the timing of an exit strategy from Afghanistan.

Shift of focus

While the presence of Italian troops in Afghanistan has led to some political debate, the mission there has not caused anything like the same kind of public controversy as Italy's deployment to Iraq.

Iraq provoked street marches and widespread anger. Afghanistan has done neither.

That is partly because of the relatively small size of Italy's contribution and also because there have been relatively few casualties in comparison to those suffered by other countries like Britain and the US.

In recent months, voters have been more concerned with issues like the economy and Silvio Berlusconi's private life, following a series of allegations about his involvement with young women.

That is now likely to change.

One early indication has been the cancellation of a demonstration by journalists this Saturday to complain about Mr Berlusconi's control of the media. The organisers say it has been delayed as an act of solidarity with the victims.

A number of sporting events this weekend will also mark the tragedy with moments of silence.

When Italy lost 19 people in one attack in Iraq in November 2003, a state funeral followed for the victims.

The same is likely to happen this time.

It will be a chance for the country to mourn and reflect.

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