Showing posts with label Terrorism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Terrorism. Show all posts

16 September 2023

Terror attack on Café de Paris

Grenades thrown into iconic meeting place

A bloodstained pavement and upturned tables and chairs after the attack
A bloodstained pavement and upturned
tables and chairs after the attack

The Café de Paris, a hang-out for Rome’s rich and famous during the 1950s and ‘60s and a symbol of the era encapsulated in Fellini’s classic film La dolce vita, was attacked by terrorists on this day in 1985.

Tables outside the iconic venue, on the city’s fashionable Via Veneto, were packed with tourists on a busy evening when two grenades were thrown from a passing car or motorcycle.

One of the devices, of the classic type known as pineapple grenades, failed to explode, but the other did go off, injuring up to 39 people.

Although 20 were taken to hospital, thankfully most were released quickly after treatment for minor wounds. There were no fatalities and only one of those hospitalised, a chef who happened to be waiting on tables at the time of the attack, suffered serious injuries, from which he recovered.

Most of the victims were reported to be American, Argentine, West German or British tourists enjoying a late evening drink while taking in the atmosphere of Roman nightlife on a street lined with shops, cafés, airline offices and luxury hotels.

It was thought that three individuals carried out the attack but only one was apprehended and charged. While two of the attackers drove away at speed, Ahmad Hassan Abu Alì Sereya fled the scene on foot and was arrested by a policeman near Piazza Fiume, just under a kilometre away. 

A 27-year-old born in Lebanon, Sereya claimed to be in Rome to buy clothes to resell on a market stall in Beirut.

The tree-lined Via Veneto was a symbol of wealth and luxury the mid-20th century Rome
The tree-lined Via Veneto was a symbol of wealth
and luxury the mid-20th century Rome
He said he was in Via Veneto at the time of the attack purely by chance. But Italian secret service agents found in his possession a telephone number registered to an office of the Palestinian Abu Nidal militant group, which was enough evidence for a court to find him guilty and hand down a 17-year prison sentence.

The motive for the attack was never fully established but it is thought the Café de Paris was chosen because of its proximity to the American Embassy in Rome. The date of the attack coincided with the third anniversary of the massacre of up to 3,000 Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites by Israeli-backed military and militia groups on the outskirts of Beirut in 1982.

The Café de Paris incident was one in a long sequence of Arab-linked terror attacks or planned attacks in Rome during the 1970s and ‘80s, the deadliest of which both occurred at the city’s Fiumicino airport.

In 1973, an attack carried out by five terrorists claimed 34 lives, including 29 passengers on a Pan American Airways plane that was stormed as it was waiting to take off.

In December 1985, just nine weeks after the Café de Paris incident, four attackers threw grenades and opened fire at the check-in desks of Israel's El Al Airline and the United States carrier Trans World Airlines, killing 12 travellers and an Israeli security officer.

Fellini's classic movie La dolce vita was filmed in the area around Via Veneto
Fellini's classic movie La dolce vita was
filmed in the area around Via Veneto
Travel tip:

Via Veneto, once one of Rome’s most elegant and expensive thoroughfares, is actually called Via Vittorio Veneto, named after the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, a decisive Italian victory of World War I, although the full name is rarely used.  Among many exclusive shops, luxury hotels and bars, the Café de Paris was probably the most famous venue. The place to see and be seen in the 1950s and ‘60s, it was a magnet for visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the film stars, models and other jet-setters who often occupied its tables. The bar was immortalised in Federico Fellini’s movie La dolce vita, starring Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée and Marcello Mastroianni, with many shots filmed there. 

The shutters across the entrances to the Cafè de Paris remain permanently closed
The shutters across the entrances to the Cafè
de Paris remain permanently closed
Travel tip

Anyone wanting to pay a nostalgic visit to the Café de Paris today will be disappointed. Although the beautiful wood and coloured glass of its frontage are still in place, and the Liberty framed glass display cases still contain black and white photographs of its famous ‘60s clientele, the doors are permanently shuttered up. The business went into decline in the later years of the 20th century and fell into the hands of mafia groups in the early part of this century, after which it was closed as part of a crackdown on money laundering. Located at No. 90 Via Veneto, close to the United States Embassy, it was revived by an anti-mafia co-operative, who served wine and food produced on land confiscated from crime gangs in southern Italy, but closed permanently in 2014 after the interior was destroyed in an arson attack. 

Also on this day:

1797: The birth of British Museum librarian Sir Anthony Panizzi

1841: The birth of politician Alessandro Fortis

1866: The Sette e Mezzo Revolt in Palermo

2005: Camorra boss Paolo Di Lauro arrested


6 January 2023

Piersanti Mattarella - assassination victim

President’s brother assumed to have been killed by Mafia

A newspaper front page reports the murder of the politician amid claims of terrorist involvement
A newspaper front page reports the murder of the
politician amid claims of terrorist involvement
The politician Piersanti Mattarella, whose brother, Sergio, is the current President of Italy, was shot dead on this day in 1980.

The 44-year-old Christian Democrat, who was president of the regional government of Sicily, was about to drive to Epiphany mass from his home in Via della Libertà in Palermo when a gunman or gunmen appeared at the side of his car.

Mattarella was shot at point blank range in front of his wife, Irma, their daughter Maria, and his wife’s mother, who were passengers in his Fiat 132. Sergio, at that time a lecturer at the University of Palermo, was called by his nephew, Bernardo, who had not been in the car. He was one of the first on the scene after the shooting and took his brother to hospital. His efforts were in vain; Piersanti was already dead.

Yet the identity of his killers was never established and doubts surrounding the motives for the attack never completely removed.

There was every reason to suspect Piersanti had been the victim of a Mafia assassination because of his drive to clean up political corruption on the island. His ambition was to break the cosy relationships the Mafia enjoyed with too many politicians, mostly in his own party. 

Piersanti had vowed to clean
up corruption in Sicily
His late father, also called Bernardo, who served as a government minister on the mainland in six administrations between 1953 and 1963, was himself accused on more than once occasion of having links with the Cosa Nostra, although none was ever proved.

Piersanti was aware that public works contracts inevitably went to Mafia-linked companies. He passed a law forcing Silician contractors to adhere to the same building standards used in the rest of Italy, which had the effect of making many of the Mafia's building schemes illegal.

But shortly after the murder had taken place, a claim for responsibility was reportedly made on behalf of a right-wing terrorist group, Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari, which later in the year would be blamed for the worst terrorist atrocity in Italian history, the bombing of Bologna railway station, which killed 85 people.

Vehemently anti-communist, NAR might have had a credible motive, too. Mattarella had been an admirer of Aldo Moro, the politician who had been a central figure in the so-called Historic Compromise that brought about a political accommodation between the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in the 1970s. Moro was kidnapped and killed in 1978.

Mattarella had sought and gained support from the PCI in Sicily when, as newly elected president in 1978, he sought to govern as head of a centre-left coalition. Although the role of the PCI was at that time external, their involvement in any form was viewed in Sicily, as on the mainland, as a step closer to direct participation in government, which those on the far right in Italian politics were determined to prevent.

Mattarella's Fiat 132 car, its windows blown out by gunshots, at the side of Via della Libertà
Mattarella's Fiat 132 car, its windows blown
out by gunshots, at the side of Via della Libertà
It was this hypothesis that formed the basis of an investigation into the killing by Giovanni Falcone, the anti-Mafia magistrate who would himself be murdered in 1992. He concluded that the killing of Piersanti Mattarella was carried out by Giuseppe Valerio Fioravanti and Gilberto Cavallini, two prominent NAR operatives.

Fioravanti, more often known as Giusva, was in Palermo at the time and his description matched that provided by Irma Mattarella, Piersanti’s widow, of one of the two involved in the attack.

But when, in 1995, Fioravanti and Cavallini eventually came to court to face charges, they were both acquitted for lack of evidence.

Meanwhile, during the 1993 trial of former prime minister Giulio Andreotti over alleged Mafia associations, a Mafia pentito - turncoat - by the name of Francesco Marino Mannoia, named four mafiosi - Salvatore Federico, Francesco Davì, Santo Inzerillo and Antonio Rotolo - as the killers, and pointed the finger at the 10 members of the Sicilian Mafia Commission, which purported to control criminal activity on the island, for ordering the murder. Andreotti, Mannoia said, had privately appealed to Mafia bosses not to kill Mattarella.

However, although all the members of the Commission, including the notoriously ruthless Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina (whose elevation to capo di tutti capi - boss of all bosses - on the island began a bloody campaign to eliminate high-profile opponents), were convicted of the murder in 1995, Mannoia’s evidence was considered unreliable and none of the alleged physical killers was convicted.

Speculation remains that both the Mafia and the NAR were involved, with the latter perhaps carrying out the assassination on behalf of the mob in return for money or favours. But the theory remains unproven.

Sergio Mattarella, who was elected President of the Italian Republic for the first time in 2015 and re-elected in 2022, has said he decided to enter politics after his brother’s assassination, having previously been content with his career as a lawyer and academic. 

A memorial was placed close to the spot where Piersanti Matterella was killed
A memorial was placed close to the spot
where Piersanti Matterella was killed 
Travel tip:

Via della Libertà, where Piersanti Mattarella lived, is a long, straight road in the centre of Palermo, the Sicilian capital, linking the junction of Viale della Croce Rossa and Viale Diana with Via Dante. Stretching for just over 2.5km (1.2 miles), it passes the Parco Piersanti Mattarella, formerly called the Giardino Inglese, an area of gardens that dates back to 1851 and has been subsequently renamed in memory of the former politician. A memorial to Mattarella has been mounted at the side of the road close to his former home. Flowers are placed there at a ceremony each year on the anniversary of his death.

The harbour at Castellammare del Golfo, where Piersanti Mattarella was born
The harbour at Castellammare del Golfo,
where Piersanti Mattarella was born
Travel tip:

Castellammare del Golfo, where Piersanti Mattarella was born, is a fishing town and tourist resort in the province of Trapani on the northern coast of Sicily, about 65km (40 miles) by the coast road to the west of Palermo. Although Mattarella was on the side of law and order, the town is noted for having been the birthplace of many American Mafia figures, including Salvatore Maranzano, Stefano Magaddino, Vito Bonventre, John Tartamella and Joseph Bonanno. It takes its name from its castle overlooking a gulf, which dates back to the Arab occupation of Sicily in the ninth century and was fortified by the Normans in the 11th century. It originally sat right on the edge of the gulf at sea level, surrounded by water and connected to the land by a drawbridge.

Also on this day:

1695: The birth of oboe player Giuseppe Sammartini

1819: The birth of painter Baldassare Verazzi

1907: The first Montessori school opens in Rome

1938: The birth of singer Adriano Celentano

2016: The death of actress Silvana Pampanini

Befana - Italy’s 6 January tradition


2 August 2018

Bologna railway station bombed

Biggest terrorist atrocity in Italy's history killed 85

The scene outside Bologna Railway Station in the aftermath of the explosion on August 2, 1980
The scene outside Bologna railway station in the aftermath
of the explosion on August 2, 1980
Italy suffered the most devastating terrorist outrage in its history on this day in 1980 with the bombing of Bologna's main railway station.

A massive 23kg (51lbs) of explosive packed into a suitcase left in a crowded waiting room was detonated at 10.25am, creating a blast that destroyed much of the main building of the station and badly damaged a train on one of the platforms.

Many people, locals and tourists, Italians and foreign nationals, were caught up in the explosion. Some were killed instantly, others died as a result of the roof of the waiting room collapsing on to the victims. There were 85 deaths and more than 200 other people were wounded.

The bomb was clearly placed to cause mass casualties. It was the first Saturday in the traditional August holiday period, one of the busiest days of the year for rail travel, and the explosive-laden suitcase was left in a room with air conditioning, then still relatively rare in Italy. On a hot day, the room was naturally full of people.

The station clock is now permanently set at the exact time the bomb exploded on that fateful Saturday morning
The station clock is now permanently set at the exact time
the bomb exploded on that fateful Saturday morning
The attack was the deadliest of several during a bleak period of 10-12 years in Italian history that became known as the Years of Lead, when the ideological struggle between the left and right in Italian politics was at its height.

It began with the killing of a Milan policeman in a far-left demonstration in November 1969 followed a few weeks later by a number of bomb attacks in Rome and Milan, the biggest of which killed 17 people in a bank in Piazza Fontana, not far from the Milan cathedral.

There were several more bombings in the years that followed and countless assassinations of policemen, military personnel, government officials and other prominent public figures, the most high profile of which was the kidnap and murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978. In all, it has been calculated that the Years of Lead claimed the lives of 428 people.

Although the killings continued after the Bologna Massacre, they happened with much less frequency after 1980 than in the three years leading up to the bombing, which has led some commentators to regard the August 2 attack as effectively bringing to an end the darkest period in Italian history since Fascism.

The tangled remains of the waiting room roof after the blast
The tangled remains of the waiting
room roof after the blast
As is almost always the case in Italy, the process of identifying the perpetrators and bringing justice was a long and torturous process.

Although the Ansa news agency received a call within minutes of the bomb going off, purporting to claim responsibility on behalf of a right-wing terrorist group known as Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (Armed Revolutionary Corps), it was seven years before anyone was brought to trial and 10 more years before a series of trials, appeals, acquittals and retrials finally resulted in the confirmed conviction for murder of two NAR members, Valerio Fioravanti and Francesca Mambro.

Even now, conspiracy theories still persist over who else might have been involved with the planning and execution of the massacre.

In an era when the Italian Communists were as close to winning power, or a share of power, in the government of the country as they have been at any stage in their history, most of the outrages carried out during the Years of Lead were attributed either to extreme left-wing groups such as the Red Brigades and Prima Linea or to far-right organisations such as Ordine Nuovo, Terza Posizione and NAR.

The attack in Bologna was seen as symbolic because it targeted a city with a history of of left-wing politics along with a strong civic culture and a tradition of supporting the Partisans and rejecting Fascism.

Valerio Fioravanti, pictured in police custody, was one of two terrorists eventually jailed for carrying out the attack
Valerio Fioravanti, pictured in police custody, was one of two
terrorists eventually jailed for carrying out the attack
But many commentators have theorised that behind the NAR, darker forces many have been at work, possibly involving the Italian government and its secret services via the secret movement known as Operation Gladio, or even the subversive Masonic organisation labelled Propaganda Due, of which countless civil servants, military personnel, policemen and politicians were secretly members.

It was even suggested that the Israeli secret services might have supported the attack to punish Italy for a perceived sympathetic stance towards the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

The finger of suspicion was pointed at Gladio because of revelations years after the bombing that this was an organisation, in effect a shadow army, that had been put in place at the end of the Second World War, with the tacit backing of the United States, to act initially as a force primed to react to any invasion by forces from the Eastern Bloc, which Italy bordered, but later to prevent, by any means, the Italian Communist Party from forming a government, which it was feared would turn Italy into a de facto Soviet satellite.

None of these theories was ever proven, although three figures connected with Italy’s military intelligence service SISMI, along with P2 grand master Licio Gelli, were convicted during the course of the trials of supplying false information likely to mislead the investigation.

The memorial at Bologna Station to the victims of the 1980 bombing
The memorial at Bologna station to the
victims of the 1980 bombing
Travel tip:

Memorial services at which to remember the 85 victims of the Bologna Massacre are held each year, with a march and a concert in Piazza Maggiore, right at the centre of the city.  There is a plaque carrying the names of all the victims, who ranged from three years old to 86, while the clock inside the station has been stopped at 10.25am as a mark of respect for those killed. The reconstructed wall to which the plaque is attached has a jagged-edged gap left in it.

The beautiful Piazza Maggiore in Bologna
The beautiful Piazza Maggiore in Bologna
Travel tip:

The history of Bologna, one of Italy's most historic cities, can be traced back to 1,000BC or possibly earlier, with a settlement that was developed into an urban area by the Etruscans, the Celts and the Romans.  The University of Bologna, the oldest in the world, was founded in 1088.  Bologna's city centre, which has undergone substantial restoration since the 1970s, is one of the largest and best preserved historical centres in Italy, characterised by 38km (24 miles) of walkways protected by porticoes.  At the heart of the city is the beautiful Piazza Maggiore, dominated by the Gothic Basilica of San Petronio, which at 132m long, 66m wide and with a facade that touches 51m at its tallest, is the 10th largest church in the world and the largest built in brick.

More reading:

December 12, 1969: The Piazza Fontana bombing

How magistrate Felice Casson revealed the existence of Operation Gladio

The kidnapping of ex-prime minister Aldo Moro

Also on this day:

1854: The birth of author Francis Marion Crawford

1945: The death of opera composer Pietro Mascagni


6 July 2018

Pietro Valpreda - the ‘bomber’ who never was

Jailed suspect acquitted after 16 years

Pietro Valpreda was charged with the bombing on the testimony of a taxi driver
Pietro Valpreda was charged with the bombing
on the testimony of a taxi driver
Pietro Valpreda, who was arrested following the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan in December 1969 and was held for 16 years awaiting trial as a terrorist before being acquitted, died on this day in 2002.

The Piazza Fontana bombing killed 17 people and injured 88 others after a device was detonated inside the Banca Nazionale dell'Agricoltura on Piazza Fontana, which is just a few streets away from the Duomo in the centre of Milan.

Valpreda was an anarchist sympathiser but insisted he was at home on the afternoon of the incident, being cared for by an aunt, who swore under police questioning that her nephew, who was a dancer with a vaudeville company, was suffering from flu.

He was charged, however, on the evidence of a taxi driver, Cornelio Rolandi, who said he dropped a man fitting Valpreda’s description in the vicinity of the bank before the bomb went off and picked him up again afterwards, minus a briefcase he had been carrying when he dropped him.

Despite considering Rolandi’s evidence to be unreliable on the grounds of inconsistencies in his description of events, prosecuting magistrates held Valpreda, along with Giuseppe Pinelli and other known members of anarchist groups.  There was a story in circulation at the time that Valpreda had been trained in the handling and use of explosives while on national service in Gorizia, but this was untrue.

Valpreda during one of his court appearances
Valpreda during one of his court appearances
Valpreda was arrested on the same day that Pinelli fell to his death from a fourth floor window at Milan’s police headquarters, an unexplained event that inspired Dario Fo’s play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

Reportedly named by Rolandi in an identity parade, Valpreda was moved to the Regina Coeli prison in the Trastevere district of Rome. He was condemned in the Italian media as if guilty beyond all doubt. The left-wing newspaper L’Unitá described him as ‘the monster of Piazza Fontana’, while others carried his picture with the headline ‘It’s him’, apparently echoing the words of Rolandi when asked to point out the suspect in the ID line-up.

He stayed at Regina Coeli for more than three years before being released to house arrest.

The process of investigating the bombing took many years. Over time, compelling evidence emerged of a plot by a right-wing group within the Italian political system to stage an event likely to destabilise the country and blame it on the left.

Giuseppi Pinelli, the bombing suspect who died in police custody
Giuseppi Pinelli, the bombing suspect
who died in police custody
Even so, it took a further 15 years until a judge decided that Valpreda should be acquitted on the grounds of lack of evidence. The suspicion was that the man the taxi driver identified as Valpreda was actually Nino Sottosanti, a neofascist who bore a close resemblance to him.

After his release, Valpreda campaigned for justice for himself and his friend Pinelli, while continuing to work as a dancer.  He also wrote poetry and published his prison diaries, under the title It's him!.  There were two further trials relating to the explosion, the most recent of which was in 2000, although as in the previous trials, the defendants, who had links to a right-wing terror group Ordine Nuovo, were acquitted for lack of evidence.

For a while, Valpreda ran a bar in Milan’s Corso Garibaldi, which was decorated with posters from campaigns for his release.  It became a meeting place for many of his former anarchist associates.

In time he sold the bar and began to write detective novels, featuring a policeman named Pietro Binda as his main character, all set in Milan and with strong political themes, mostly written with the collaboration of crime journalist Piero Colaprico.  He died at his home in Milan aged 69.

One of the simple memorials to the  bombing suspect Giuseppe Minelli
One of the simple memorials to the
bombing suspect Giuseppe Minelli
Travel tip:

Piazza Fontana can be found behind Milan’s Duomo, a short walk away along via Via Carlo Maria Martini.  There are two simple memorials to Giuseppe Pinelli, the bombing suspect who died in police custody, on a lawn opposite the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura.  On the other side of the piazza is Milan’s 16th-century Archbishop's Palace, partly modified with neoclassical additions in the 18th century, which is the official residence of the Archbishop of Milan. The palace owes its grandeur to archbishop Carlo Borromeo, who wanted to live permanently in the palace and commissioned Pellegrino Tibaldi to undertake a reconstruction project in 1585.

Corso Garibaldi in Milan, looking towards Porta Garibaldi
Corso Garibaldi in Milan, looking
towards Porta Garibaldi
Travel tip:

Corso Garibaldi, which runs from Porta Garibaldi towards the city centre in the direction of the Sforza Castle, is the street on which Valpreda kept a bar after his acquittal. Modern and semi-pedestrianised, it is a pleasant and relatively peaceful thoroughfare with numerous bars and restaurants more frequently used by local residents rather than tourists, although the popularity of the neighbouring Brera district is changing this. The metro station Moscova is situated halfway along the street. The simple church of Santa Maria Incoronata can be found at the Porta Garibaldi end.

More reading:

The Piazza Fontana bombing

Giuseppe Pinelli and the Accidental Death of an Anarchist

How Dario Fo put the spotlight on corruption

Also on this day:

1849: The death of Goffredo Mameli, writer of the Italian national anthem

1942: The death of Sicilian Mafia-buster Cesare Mori


1 May 2017

The Portella della Ginestra Massacre

Conspiracy theories behind murder of peasants

The bandit Salvatore Giuliano was blamed for the atrocity
The bandit Salvatore Giuliano was
blamed for the atrocity
Sicily and the whole of Italy was horrified on this day in 1947 when gunmen opened fire on defenceless peasants gathered for a Labour Day celebration in the hills above Palermo, killing 11 and wounding more than 30 in what became known as the Portella della Ginestra Massacre.

The victims included four children between the ages of seven and 15, who were cut down indiscriminately by a gang of men, some on horseback, who appeared suddenly and began firing machine guns as the peasants, numbering several hundred, congregated on a plain along a remote mountain pass between the towns of Piana degli Albanesi and San Giuseppe Jato, where a Labour Day rally had taken place every year since 1893.

Salvatore Giuliano, an outlaw wanted in connection with the killing of a police officer in 1943, was held responsible although many people believed that Giuliano and his gang of bandits were set up as scapegoats in a conspiracy involving the Mafia, wealthy landowners and politicians.

The outrage came only 10 days after a surprise victory by the so-called People’s Block - a coalition of the Italian Communist Party and the Italian Socialist Party - in the elections for the Constituent Assembly of the autonomous region of Sicily, defeating the Christian Democrats, the Monarchists and the right-wing Uomo Qualunque party. 

The conspiracy theory arose for a number of reasons, one being that the Communist leader in Sicily, Girolamo Li Causi, had pledged to redistribute large land holdings, restricting any one landowner to no more than 100 hectares (247 acres), which had provoked fury among Sicily’s legitimate large landowners and, naturally, within the Mafia.

Girolamo Li Causi addresses a rally on the site of the Portella della Ginestra killings
Girolamo Li Causi addresses a rally on the
site of the Portella della Ginestra killings
The other was that politicians in mainland Italy feared that the Communist victory in Sicily would be a tipping point for the whole nation. The Communists were gaining ground elsewhere and with an election due in October the Christian Democrats, under pressure from American interests in particular, were desperate to keep Italy from moving to the extreme left.

A third reason to suspect a political motive, a much more straightforward one, was that Giuliano, previously regarded as something of a Robin Hood figure, stealing from the rich to help the poor, was also the self-styled leader of a loosely organised Sicilian separatist movement, to which Li Causi was opposed.

Tensions escalated when Mario Scelba, the Christian Democrat Minister of the Interior, told parliament only the day after the massacre that the police in Sicily had already determined that the killings had no political element.  This provoked a debate so heated that it descended into a brawl involving up to 200 deputies from the left and the right.

Giuliano remained in hiding but sent messages protesting his innocence, claiming he had been hired simply to fire shots in the air as a scare tactic designed to intimidate rather than to wound people, but that under cover of this ‘attack’, others had carried out the massacre.

This prompted Li Causi, addressing a rally at Portella della Ginestra on the second anniversary of the massacre, to challenge Giuliano to name names.

Gaspare Pisciotta gave evidence from  behind bars at the trial in Viterbo
Gaspare Pisciotta gave evidence from
behind bars at the trial in Viterbo
In a written reply, Giuliano refused. Li Causi responded by urging Giuliano not to trust the politicians or landowners to protect him, suggesting that “Scelba will have you killed", to which Giuliano responded by saying: "I know that Scelba wants to have me killed; he wants to have me killed because I keep a nightmare hanging over him. I can make sure he is brought to account for actions that, if revealed, would destroy his political career and end his life."

In the event, Giuliano was indeed killed, supposedly by Carabinieri in a gun battle in Castelvetrano, a town in the south-west of Sicily, where he had taken refuge in a Mafia stronghold, just as the trial of the accused in the Portella della Ginestra massacre was beginning in Viterbo in Lazio.

After an adjournment, the trial began in earnest in 1951. When it concluded it was ruled that no higher authority had ordered the massacre, and that the Giuliano band had acted autonomously.  This was despite the testimony of Giuliano's lieutenant, Gaspare Pisciotta, who named several politicians, including Scelba, and senior policemen as being behind the massacre.

Under oath, Pisciotta claimed that shortly before the massacre, Giuliano had read out the contents of a letter, which he immediately destroyed, informing the gang that all charges against them over the 1943 murder and other crimes would be dropped in return for carrying out the killings. 

The poster for Rosi's film
The poster for Rosi's film
He also claimed to have killed Giuliano himself, on behalf of Scelba, and that the gun battle was a fabrication.  Much of this testimony, however, came in the course of incoherent outbursts and when the prosecution made reference to internal conflicts within the Giuliano gang, Pisciotta was dismissed as an unreliable witness.

He and 11 others were sentenced to life imprisonment. Four bandits received shorter sentences and 20 were acquitted, although many of those freed subsequently disappeared or were killed. Pisciotta was poisoned in his prison cell in 1954. 

The story of the massacre was the subject of an award-winning 1962 film, Salvatore Giuliano, directed by Francesco Rosi, and a 1986 opera by Lorenzo Ferrero.

The site of the memorial to the massacre victims
The bleak site of the memorial to the victims
Travel tip:

The site of the Portella della Ginestra massacre, which can be found on Strada Provinciale 34 about four kilometres (2.5 miles) south-west of Piana degli Albanesi and about 30km (19 miles) from Palermo, is commemorated with 11 jagged upright stones, one for each of the victims, on the spot where they fell. A memorial plaque states: “On May 1, 1947, while celebrating the working class festival and the victory of April 20, men, women and children of Piana, S. Cipirello and S. Giuseppe fell under the bullets of the Mafia and the landed barons to crush the struggle of the peasants against feudalism.”

The lake of Piana degli Albanesi with the town in the distance
The lake of Piana degli Albanesi with the town in the distance
Travel tip:

Piana degli Albanesi, as the name suggests, is an important centre for the Albanian population of Sicily, having been founded in the 15th century by Albanian refugees driven out of the Balkans during its conquest by the Ottoman Empire. The 6,000-strong community has maintained many elements of Albanian culture, including language, religious ritual, traditional costumes, music and folklore.  There are a number of Albanian churches, including the Cathedral of St Demetrius Megalomartyr and the church of St George, both built in the late 15th century. The town overlooks a lake of the same name.

See the most popular Piana degli Albanesi hotels with TripAdvisor

More reading:

Francesco Cossiga and the battle to keep the Communists out of power

Novelist Leonardo Sciascia exposed the links between Mafia and Sicilian politics

How Francesco Rosi tackled politically sensitive stories with documentary style realism

Also on this day:

1908: The birth of Don Camillo's creator, the novelist Giovanni Guareschi

27 December 2016

Terrorist attack at Fiumicino

Horrifying end to Christmas celebrations

The departure hall at Fiumicino in the aftermath of the 1985 attack
The departure hall at Fiumicino in the
aftermath of the 1985 attack
The peace of Italy's festive celebrations was shattered by a devastating terrorist attack on this day in 1985 when Arab gunmen opened fire in the main departure hall at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport.

The attack, which claimed the lives of 16 people, took place shortly after 9.05am, when the four perpetrators approached the check-in desks of Israel's El Al Airline and the United States carrier Trans World Airlines.

Israeli secret services were aware that an attempt either to hijack a plane or stage an attack on the ground was being planned between December 25 and 31 in Rome and an Israeli security officer became suspicious of the quartet as he watched their movements in the departure hall.

However, when he stepped forward to challenge them, they produced assault rifles and began firing, at the same time throwing grenades.

The Israeli officer was killed and in the ensuing gunfight, involving more Israeli security staff and Italian police, some 12 passengers were fatally wounded.  They included Americans, Mexicans, Greeks, Italians and at least one Algerian.

The entrance to Fiumicino Airport today
The entrance to Fiumicino Airport today
Three of the gunmen were shot dead and a fourth, 18-year-old Ibrahim Khaled, was captured by police.

A simultaneous attack at Vienna International Airport resulted in three more passenger deaths.

The attacks were at first blamed on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), but its leader, Yasser Arafat, denied the accusations and denounced the strikes.  Responsibility was later claimed by the breakaway PLO faction, the Abu Nidal Organization, in retaliation for the Israeli bombing of PLO headquarters in Tunis three months earlier.

The United States accused Libya, who praised the attacks as "heroic", of funding the terrorists who carried out the attacks. The charge was denied.  Italian secret services blamed Syria and Iran and in 2013 a court in the United States ruled that Syria owed the victims of the attacks $1 billion each in compensation.

Ibrahim Khaled, the only survivor among the Rome attackers, was sentenced in 1988 to 30 years in jail.  Abu Nidal himself was sentenced to life imprisonment in his absence.  Khaled had told investigators that both the Rome and Vienna operations had been carried out by Abu Nidal's guerrilla group and that the attacks had been planned in Damascus with the apparent consent of the Syrian authorities.

The Rome attack took place 12 years after 34 people died at Fiumicino - 30 of them on board a Pan American aircraft on the runway - during another attack by Arab terrorists.

Travel tip:

While best known as the location of Rome's largest international airport, Fiumicino, which is situated at the mouth of the Tiber, about 30km (19 miles) from the centre of the capital, is also a resort town and fishing centre with a population of almost 78,000.  Attractions include the Oasi di Macchiagrande nature reserve, the Museum of Roman Ships and an art museum, the Pianeta Azzurro.

Some parts of Ostia Antica are stunningly well preserved
Some parts of Ostia Antica are stunningly well preserved
Travel tip:

Across the Tiber from Fiumicino, the remains of the ancient Roman city of Ostica Antica, represent an underappreciated gem. Beautifully preserved - more so than the volcano-ravaged Pompei - the site occupies around 10,000 square metres, radiating from a mile-long main street.  There are many houses and apartment blocks, plus warehouses and public buildings, and an impressive amphitheatre.  The city used to be Rome's port but the natural changes in the geography of the coastline over the centuries mean that it is now 3km (2 miles) inland.

More reading:

Kidnap of ex-PM Aldo Moro stuns Italy

Red Brigades seize NATO boss in Verona

Death of a terror suspect that inspired a Dario Fo play

Also on this day:

(Picture credits: Fiumicino Airport by Ra Boe; Ostia Antica by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra; via Wikimedia Commons)


17 December 2016

NATO boss seized by Red Brigades

Brigadier-General James L Dozier held for 42 days

General James L Dozier pictured when he returned to Italy in  2012 for a reunion with the special forces team who freed him
General James L Dozier pictured when he returned to Italy in
2012 for a reunion with the special forces team who freed him
Three years after the kidnap and murder of the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro shocked Italy and the wider world, terrorists representing the ultra-left group Brigate Rosse - the Red Brigades - returned to the headlines on this day in 1981 with the abduction of the high-ranking United States Army officer James L Dozier.

Brigadier-General Dozier, who was serving in Italy as deputy Chief of Staff of NATO's Southern European land forces, was seized and taken from his apartment in Verona and held for 42 days before being rescued by Italian special forces.

The kidnap took place at between 5.30 and 6pm when four men turned up at the door of the apartment posing as plumbers.  The general was overpowered and then struck over the head before his wife, Judith, who was initially held at gunpoint, was tied up with chains and plastic tape.

According to his wife, 50-year-old General Dozier was then bundled into what she described as a "steamship trunk", which the men carried out to a waiting van.  Mrs Dozier was left in the apartment, alerting neighbours later by banging on the walls.

It was the first time the Red Brigades had held a member of the American military, or any foreign national, although kidnappings were a major element of their strategy, either for  political objectives to raise funds via ransom demands, during the so-called "Years of Lead".

The Italian authorities were hampered in their search for General Dozier by a succession of calls by people purporting to know where he was being held, including one from an Arabic-speaking caller in Beirut.  Police carried out numerous searches of premises in Verona, Venice and Trento, but all the supposed tip-offs turned out to be hoaxes.

However, they eventually received information that was genuine and an apartment in Padua became the focus of the search.

The front page headline in the Rome newspaper Il  Messaggero the day after General Dozier was freed
The front page headline in the Rome newspaper Il
Messaggero the day after General Dozier was freed
The apartment was kept under surveillance for three days before a team of 13 officers from the Nucleo Operativo Centrale Sicurezza, led by Major Eduardo Perna, captured the building on the morning of January 28, 1982.

Six officers secured the perimeter of the apartment block before Major Perna led six others in forcing their way in.

Inside, they found General Dozier chained by his right wrist and left ankle to the central pole of a small tent.  He was barefoot, gagged and wearing a tracksuit but was otherwise unhurt, although he had lost some weight.

There were five Red Brigade members in the apartment, including one who pointed a gun at their captive's head as soon as the raid began.  It later transpired that he had been instructed to kill General Dozier in the event of a rescue attempt but failed to do so.

In fact, all five of his captors - three men and two women - surrendered with little resistance and no shots were fired.  During the 42 days the American was held, the Red Brigades issued a number of messages outlining their complaints but none contained any ransom demand.

The objective of the terrorists seemed to be to extract information from General Dozier, in particular with relation to NATO plans to deploy nuclear missiles in Western Europe, including in Sicily, to counter the threat of Soviet missiles aimed at European cities.

In between interrogation sessions, General Dozier was exposed to constant artificial light and forced to endure loud music played through headphones for hours at a time, which left him with permanent hearing damage.

Eduardo Perna pictured at his reunion with  General Dozier in 2012
Eduardo Perna pictured at his reunion with
General Dozier in 2012
The Red Brigades gang was led by Antonio Savasta, the head of the terror group's operations in Venice, and included his girlfriend, Emilia Libera.  Police also seized guns, hand grenades, explosives and ammunition in the apartment.  Savasta, who had also played a role in the Aldo Moro abduction, was later sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Using intelligence obtained from the five arrested in the raid, the Italians launched a crackdown on Red Brigades activity soon after General Dozier's release and early the following year 59 of the group's members stood trial for the murders of Aldo Moro and 16 others, with a number of those convicted receiving life sentences.

General Dozier returned to Italy in 2012 for an emotional reunion with Major Eduardo Perna and the other members of his NOCS team.

Travel tip:

The former NATO headquarters in Verona, Caserma Passalacqua, was situated on land between the city's Monumental Cemetery and the University of Verona, less than one kilometre from Piazza Bra and the Arena di Verona.  There are plans to redevelop the Caserma Passalacqua site, which was abandoned in 2004, to include social housing and market housing and to provide the city with its largest park.

Hotels in Verona from

The Arena di Verona undergoes preparation for a concert
The Arena di Verona undergoes preparation for a concert
Travel tip:

Verona, a city in the Veneto region, has a medieval city centre built alongside the winding Adige River. Famous for being the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to the 14th-century building on Via Cappello, with a tiny balcony overlooking a courtyard, which is said to have been Juliet’s house. The city's other major attraction is the Arena di Verona, the vast Roman amphitheatre in Piazza Bra that stages music concerts and large-scale opera performances.

More reading:

Aldo Moro - Italy's tragic former prime minister

How Moro death and Operation Gladio haunted career of former president Francesco Cossiga

A bombing in Milan and the accidental death of an anarchist

Also on this day:

1749: Birth of 'comic opera' composer Domenico Cimarosa


21 October 2016

Giuseppe Pinelli - anarchist

His 'accidental death' inspired classic Dario Fo play

Giuseppe Pinelli
Giuseppe Pinelli
Giuseppe 'Pino' Pinelli, the railway worker from Milan who inspired Dario Fo to write his classic play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, was born on this day in 1928.

Pinelli fell to his death from a fourth floor window of the Milan Questura - the main police station - on December 15, 1969, three days after a bomb exploded at a bank in Piazza Fontana in Milan, killing 17 people and wounding 88.  A known anarchist during a period of growing political and social tension in Italy, Pinelli had been picked up for questioning, along with a number of other activists, over the Piazza Fontana bomb.

The story put out first by police was that Pinelli had jumped, willing to take his own life rather than face prosecution. Yet three police officers who had been interrogating Pinelli were put under investigation.

No action was taken against them and later a judge ruled that Pinelli's death had been accidental. This time the suggestion was that he had fainted, lost his balance and fallen through the open window, which seemed to many to be somewhat far-fetched.

It did not convince his supporters and when one of his interrogators, Commissioner Luigi Calabresi, was shot dead on his way to work in May 1972, two left-wing activists were convicted of his murder. Pinelli was posthumously cleared of playing any part in the bombing, which was blamed on far-right extremists.

Plaque commemorating the victims  of the Piazza Fontana bomb
Plaque commemorating the victims
 of the Piazza Fontana bomb
Born in the then working class area of Porta Ticinese, Pinelli left school early to supplement the family income, taking jobs as a waiter and a warehouseman. The opportunity to take a more secure job as a railwayman did not come along until his mid-20s. He was married soon after joining the railway and fathered two children.

Already politically active with anti-Fascist groups, Pinelli became increasingly interested in libertarianism, a philosophy that favours minimal state intervention in the lives of citizens, and in anarchism, whose proponents believe in the abolition of all government and the organisation of society by voluntary co-operation.

Pinelli was a member of a group that eventually evolved into the Ponte della Ghisolfa Anarchist Club, named after a railway viaduct visible from the Porta Garibaldi station, where Pinelli worked.  After the student unrest in France in 1968, such groups saw their memberships swell as young Italians also began to challenge authority and the state.

That period was also the beginning of the so-called Years of Lead in Italy, when social and political tension was frequently punctuated by acts of terrorism, of which the Piazza Fontana bombing, the target of which was the Banca Nazionale dell'Agricoltura, was the first major incident involving civilian deaths.

Over the next decade or so, organisations at both extremes of the political spectrum, from the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) on the left to the far-right Ordine Nuovo (New Order), were responsible for bombings and assassinations, including the kidnap and murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro and the bombing of Bologna railway station.

The plaque honouring Giuseppe
Pinelli placed by friends
The situation was complicated by the existence, admitted only later, of the CIA-sponsored Operation Gladio, a secret network that aimed to manipulate events in a way designed to diminish support for Italy's Communist Party.

The Piazza Fontana incident, which was later established as the work of Ordine Nuovo, was initially blamed on left-wing extremists and sparked a crackdown on such groups, although Pinelli was unaware of this when police turned up at his door within just a few hours of the explosion.

The similar plaque placed by  Milan Council
The similar plaque placed by
Milan Council
He was used to dealing with the police, although it was usually over matters such as licensing of premises and permission to stage public gatherings.  Luigi Calabresi, at it happened, was the officer he dealt with most, and there was no evidence of serious friction between them.  Pinelli did not need to be arrested, voluntarily following the patrol car to the police station on his motorbike.

What he did not expect was to find the station packed with other activists rounded up in a general sweep and to be detained for well over the 48 hours permitted, and subjected to intense questioning.  He certainly did not foresee that he would never return home.

Dario Fo, a playwright, actor and comic entertainer with a reputation for acidic satire, wrote Accidental Death of an Anarchist within a year of Pinelli's fatal fall.

Dario Fo
Dario Fo
In the play, which he presents as a farce, Fo sends up the police as slow and dim-witted, tricked by a fast-talking fraudster known as The Maniac, who employs a series of impersonations to confuse the officers, into contradicting themselves and revealing that there has been a cover-up involving the death of an anarchist.

Still performed today, it is the best known of all Fo's 80-plus plays, certainly outside Italy.  It has been performed in more than 40 countries.  Fo, who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997, died earlier this month, aged 90.

Milan's own 'Grand Canal' - part of the now fashionable Navigli district, where Pinelli grew up
Milan's own 'Grand Canal' - part of the now fashionable
Navigli district, where Pinelli grew up
Travel tip:

The area of Milan called Porta Ticinese draws its name from one of the gates in the medieval walls of the city, from which a road led to the Ticino river, which loops around the city to the south and west.  It was rebuilt twice, by the Spanish in the 16th century, and in the 19th century along the current neo-classical lines, comprising massive pillars and columns topped with a triangular decorative tympanum.  The area is part of the Navigli district, once a poor neighbourhood but now very popular for the restaurants and bars that line what remains of Milan's canal system.

Travel tip:

Piazza Fontana is located a short distance from Milan's Duomo, accessible along Via Carlo Maria Martini, behind the cathedral to the right.  As well as a plaque on the wall of the Banca Nazionale dell'Agricoltura, commemorating the 17 people killed when the bomb exploded inside their building, there are two simple memorials to Giuseppe Pinelli on an area of grass opposite the bank, one erected by the city council, which refers to Pinelli's 'tragic death', the other by friends of Pinelli, who use the word 'killed' in their inscription.

More reading:

How the death of Aldo Moro changed history

(Photos of Pinelli memorials by Piero Montesacro CC BY-SA 4.0)
(Photo of Dario Fo by Garupdebesanez CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Navagli by Geobia CC BY-SA 2.0)


16 March 2016

Aldo Moro - Italy's tragic former prime minister

Politician kidnapped and murdered by Red Brigades

Aldo Moro pictured in 1978, not long before his kidnap by the Red Brigades
Aldo Moro pictured in 1978, not long
before his kidnap by the Red Brigades
Italy and the wider world were deeply shocked on this day in 1978 when the former Italian prime minister, Aldo Moro, was kidnapped on the streets of Rome in a violent ambush that claimed the lives of his five bodyguards.

The attack took place on Via Mario Fani, a few minutes from Signor Moro's home in the Monte Mario area, at shortly after 9am during the morning rush hour.  Moro, a 61-year-old Christian Democrat politician who had formed a total of five Italian governments, between 1963 and 1968 and again from 1974-76, was being driven to the Palazzo Montecitorio in central Rome for a session of the Chamber of Deputies.

As the traffic forced Moro's car to pause outside a café, one of four small Fiat saloon cars used by the kidnappers reversed into a space in front of Moro's larger Fiat, in which the front seats were occupied by two carabinieri officers with Moro sitting behind them.  Another of the kidnappers' Fiats pulled in behind the Alfa Romeo immediately following Moro's, which contained three more bodyguards.  At that moment, four gunmen emerged from bushes close to the roadside and began firing automatic weapons.

Moro's five bodyguards were killed before he was pulled from his vehicle and bundled into another of the kidnappers' cars, which had stopped alongside and was then driven away at speed.

La Repubblica's headline: Moro rapito (Moro kidnapped)
The front page of La Repubblica
brings news of the dramatic events
"Moro rapito (kidnapped)"
Soon afterwards, responsibility for the kidnapping was claimed by the Red Brigades, the notorious left-wing terrorist organisation that had been carrying out violent acts since the early 1970s, aimed at destabilising the country.

Moro was held captive for 55 days before his body was found in the boot of a Renault car in Via Michelangelo Caetani in Rome's historic centre on the afternoon of May 9 following a tip-off. During his period of captivity, members of the Red Brigades communicated with the authorities that Moro had been tried and condemned to death for what they perceived as his "political crimes" but that they would consider a pardon in return for the release of 13 members of the organisation, including the founder, Renato Curcio, who were on trial in Turin.

However, the state's position was that it would not negotiate with terrorists, despite personal pleas from Moro himself.  Numerous attempts to locate his place of imprisonment were unsuccessful.

The authorities ultimately identified 10 individuals involved in the kidnapping, eight of whom were arrested.

The motives for the kidnapping appeared to be linked to Moro's role as a negotiator between the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party - the PCI - who at the time were gaining considerable support in Italy as a left-wing group who supported democracy and parliament.  Moro was an advocate of the so-called 'historic compromise' between the two ideologically-opposed groups.

The memorial to Aldo Moro in Via Caetani
(Photo: Torvindus (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The PCI had condemned the Red Brigades for their violent tactics and revolutionary aims and in turn the Red Brigades had accused the PCI of allowing themselves to be manipulated by the right.

On the day of the kidnap, the Chamber of Deputies had been due to vote on an alliance between the Christian Democrats and the PCI, brokered by Moro in what became known as the 'historic compromise', that would have given the Communists a direct role in Italy's government for the first time.

The Red Brigades are said to have wanted this process to be derailed and if this was their objective they succeeded. A vote of confidence in Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti's right-wing coalition government went ahead as planned later in the day and Andreotti won with a large majority, with even members of the PCI voting with him in the interests of national security and stability.

Yet although there were four subsequent trials relating to the Moro murder and 38 years have passed, conspiracy theories still circulate that forces other than the terrorist group were involved.

Given that the kidnap took place with the Cold War between east and west still a long way from resolution, the most popular theories link his death with American opposition to the involvement of the PCI in any Italian government, preferring Italy to retain its position as a bulwark between western Europe and the Eastern Bloc which it bordered.

Others suspect the involvement of the subsequently outlawed Masonic lodge Propaganda Due, which had among its members many politicians, industrialists, prominent journalists and military leaders who saw the Italian communists as a threat.

Travel tip:

Visitors to Rome can pay their respects to Aldo Moro at a modest monument in Via Michelangelo Caetani, close to the place his body was discovered.  There is a plaque and a bronze bas-relief portrait on a wall opposite the Palazzo Caetani.  The street can be found in central Rome a short walk from the Largo di Torre Argentina, scene of the death of Julius Caesar on 15 March 44BC. A plaque in Via Mario Fani remembers the five policeman killed in the kidnap.

Piazza Aldo Moro in Lecce
Photo: Lupiae (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Travel tip:

Aldo Moro was born in the far south of Italy in Maglie, an inland town of just under 15,000 inhabitants in Apulia, in the Province of Lecce. The historic city of Lecce, famous for its baroque architecture, is 25 kilometres to the north.  Moro has been honoured with the naming of a square, the Piazza Aldo Moro, in the centre of the town.

More reading:

Why Socialist politician Bettino Craxi opposed Aldo Moro's 'historic compromise'

How the Moro tragedy cast a shadow over the political career of president Francesco Cossiga

Enrico Berlinguer - the leader who turned Italy's Communists into a political force

Also on this day:

1886: The birth of athlete Emilio Lunghi, Italy's first Olympic medal winner

1940: The birth of controversial film director Bernardo Bertolucci