Italian leader reports Vatican Christmas threat

By Associated Press
Published December 27, 2003 2:50PM (EST)

Terrorists planned to attack the Vatican with a hijacked plane on Christmas Day, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said in a newspaper interview published Saturday.

Berlusconi told Milan's Libero newspaper of a "precise and verified news of an attack on Rome on Christmas Day."

"A hijacked plane into the Vatican," Berlusconi is quoted as saying. "An attack from the sky, is that clear? The threat of terrorism is very high in this instant. I passed Christmas Eve in Rome to deal with the situation. Now I feel calm. It will pass."

He added, "It isn't fatalism, but the knowledge of having our guard up. If they organized this, they will not pull it off."

Berlusconi gave no further details in the interview about who the intended hijackers were, where the information came from and how the attack was thwarted.

Security has been tightened around the Vatican in recent weeks amid reports that churches could become terrorist targets. During Christmas celebrations, Italian police guarded the perimeter of the vast St. Peter's Square and pilgrims entering the basilica passed through metal detectors.

The Vatican refused Saturday to respond to questions about a possible Christmas threat.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a statement, "As in every case of suspected or valid information regarding security themes, I have no comment to make."

Berlusconi's office issued its own statement Saturday, saying the premier's remarks did not amount to official declarations.

"Premier Silvio Berlusconi gave no interview. One cannot confuse a quick exchange of Christmas greetings with political declarations," it said.

The premier also was quoted by Libero as saying he received information in November of another planned attack, on the subways of Milan and Rome.

"There were those who insisted that the stations be closed," Berlusconi is quoted as saying. "I took on myself the responsibility for avoiding certain measures. They would had the same effect on the minds of people as an attack, they would have killed us inside, with dramatic social and economic consequences.

"Terrorism wants to make us close up. I preferred to double up the safety checks."

Associated Press

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