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Police arrest eight men for occupying famed bell tower in Venice

May 9, 1997

VENICE, Italy (AP) _ The uniformed men bought their ferry tickets just after midnight and boarded like all the other passengers. Then, they pulled a submachine gun and ordered the captain to sail to one of Venice’s most famous landmarks, St. Mark’s Square.

The men, eight Venetian separatists that the city’s chief prosecutor calls ``crazies,″ began a bizarre 7 1/2-hour takeover Friday of the piazza’s famed bell tower.

Police commandos ended takeover in just 10 bloodless minutes.

By mid-morning, the tourists were strolling the piazza as usual. But while the 324-foot tower that presides over the heart of this city of canals was out of danger, the political fallout was just beginning.

The drama started when the eight men, wearing camouflage, boarded the ferry with an armored vehicle and a camper. Capt. Giovanni Girotto thought they were just another load of military passengers.

Somehow, they managed to get the vehicle off the ferry, park it, break into the tower and take up positions inside without anyone stopping them. It was not until 1:30 a.m. that a passer-by alerted police.

Hundreds of police then sealed off the square and authorities spent most of the night trying to negotiate with the men. ``Even crazies must be taken seriously until you’re sure it’s a bluff,″ said the chief prosecutor, Mario Daniele.

The separatists unfurled a banner proclaiming that the ``government″ of a new Venetian republic had taken the tower, which dates from the ninth century.

Around dawn, they interrupted a local TV broadcast with a powerful transmitter.

``Attention, the Most Serene Venetian government has occupied the bell tower of St. Mark’s,″ a faint male voice said.

The commando raid came at 8:30 a.m., from three fronts of the tower that dates from the ninth century.

Some police rushed in the front door, others came through a low window and another batch climbed up outside on scaffolding set up for repair work.

Six separatists inside the tower were quickly overpowered; two more inside the homemade armored vehicle surrendered without a fight after the commandos threatened to blow it up.

Police found a single submachine-gun; enough food, water and kerosene for several days; clean, ironed underwear; crackers and some local wine and several flyers signed by the ``Serenissima Repubblica″ or ``The Most Serene Republic.″

That is the historical name for Venice during the hundreds of years it was an independent republic and one of Europe’s great economic powers. Next Monday is the 200th anniversary of the fall of the Venetian Republic.

It was not the first time that Italy’s landmarks have been used as stages for political or criminal messages. In 1993, bombings blamed on the Mafia damaged the Uffizi museum in Florence and two churches in Rome.

In recent years, Venice _ for centuries a rich, powerful seafaring republic _ has become a symbol for the discontent of Italy’s affluent north. But the tower takeover provoked an instant outcry and sharp condemnations of the autonomy-minded Northern League party.

``It’s clear that in a climate where one talks of secession ... these things can happen,″ Venice Mayor Massimo Cacciari said.

Northern League leader Umberto Bossi disavowed any connection to Friday’s occupation, which he dismissed as ``theater.″

``We don’t have anything to do with it,″ said Bossi, whose symbolic declaration of an independent northern republic last year badly damaged his party’s image.

The party’s growth has been fueled by northern discontent with high taxes and the central government in Rome. The League has fared poorly in Venice itself, but has strong support in the surrounding region.

Venice prosecutor Rita Ugolini said the men, who will undergo formal questioning Saturday, face charges of hijacking, subversion and arms possession.

Italian television said one of them became ill and was hospitalized. It interviewed friends and neighbors, who described them all as ordinary working men from the region around Venice. At least one belongs to the Northern League.

``We’re political prisoners,″ one yelled as the suspects were taken away in a convoy of police boats.

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