Friday, April 08, 2005

Chief Minister arrives as Rome braces for onslaught of millions

Chief Minister Peter Caruana is in Rome today to represent Gibraltar at the funeral of Pope John Paul II amidst a massive security operation that includes the use of NATO spy planes and a no fly zone over the ancient city.

Tucked behind ancient walls and iron gates, The Vatican City is protected by Swiss Guards armed with halberds, a small but efficient secret service packing handguns and a special Italian police corps.

Neither their manpower nor their firepower is any match for the security nightmare confronting the Vatican as it prepares to lay Pope John Paul to rest. But Rome’s police chief, his forces steeled and on high alert for any plot to disrupt tomorrow morning’s funeral, insisted he is ready.

“We have no time to be afraid," the chief, Marcello Fulvi, said today, clenching his fists on his desk as he ticked off a long list of security and surveillance measures designed to thwart terrorists. Asked about the possibility of a terrorist strike, he said police “do not have precise signals."

A US terrorism analyst suggested the threat was overblown.

“The obvious question that arises is what is the threat to the pope’s funeral? Most likely, no threat at all," said Dennis Pluchinsky, a 28 year US State Department veteran with TransSecur, a company that provides multinational corporations with global threat assessments.

“It is doubtful that any terrorist group would consider constructing an attack against these dignitaries given the level and scope of security around the Vatican and the short time frame for planning," Pluchinsky said. “Six days is not enough time to plan a major attack on a hard target."

As officials rushed to make final preparations for the funeral and tighten security for US President George Bush and leaders from more than 80 other countries, Rome’s mayor prepared to lock down the capital as a precaution.

A ban on car and truck traffic was to be imposed starting at 0100 BST today and remain in place until 1700 BST - a measure designed to help seal off a city of 3.7 million temporarily doubled in population by the extraordinary influx of pilgrims.

At the Rome police situation room, which has been coordinating funeral security with other law enforcement agencies, 30 officers were working round-the-clock shifts monitoring more than 50 large surveillance screens. Remote cameras let them zoom in on any suspicious activities at St Peter’s Square, the Tiber River and key piazzas.

Fulvi said about 8,000 security agents would be in place for the funeral, including 2,000 uniformed police officers patrolling St. Peter’s and the boulevard leading up to it and another 1,400 plainclothes officers wandering the streets.

Authorities have been scrambling to secure the Vatican and the capital, their efforts complicated by “the exceptional nature of the event and the extremely short time we have had," Fulvi said.

Among the expert forces being deployed are bomb disposal teams and anti-sabotage experts, all part of “a strategy of absolutely visible security," he said.

Italy’s security agencies have arranged for snipers to take up positions on rooftops, a warship armed with torpedoes to cruise the coastline near Rome and anti-aircraft rocket launchers to be cocked at the sky to thwart any airborne attack.

Nato was sending an AWACS surveillance jet at the request of Italian authorities, something spokesman Robert Pszczel said “was done on many occasions." Air space within a five mile radius of Rome will be closed during the funeral, and traffic at Leonardo Da Vinci Airport will be reduced. Officials today shut down Rome’s Ciampino Airport, which is used for both civilian and military flights.

Officials acknowledge the sheer number of heads of state, monarchs and other VIPs assembling for the funeral could present a tempting target to militants looking to strike in spectacular fashion.

Moreover, Italian prosecutors have been conducting an ongoing investigation into alleged al-Qaida cells in the northern city of Milan.

Security was noticeably tighter outside the US ambassador’s residence in Rome, where Bush was staying.

The US delegation includes former Presidents George Bush snr and Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Among others attending are the Prince of Wales and Prime Minister Tony Blair; UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; French President Jacques Chirac; German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and 150 other leaders and royals.
Many of the leaders’ bodyguards will be carrying weapons around St Peter’s - a practice the Vatican frowns on but puts up with.

“It’s clear that there is an exceptional presence of heads of state never recorded before in Italy or in other parts of the world," Fulvi said. “This obliges us to provide the highest levels of security regardless of any other consideration."

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