Bossi talks of armed fight for secession

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Telephone taps on Italy's Northern League boss have revealed that Umberto Bossi planned to back up his threat of secession with violence, writes Andrew Gumbel in Rome

It was exactly the compromising evidence Italian prosecutors have been seeking to nail the northern separatist leader. For months they have been investigating Umberto Bossi's Northern League for possible subversion of the state, looking high and low for a smoking gun - evidence that the party planned to back up its threats of secession from Italy with organised violence.

As was clear from the leak of documents to yesterday's morning papers, they have at last hit on something. Transcripts from tapped telephone conversations excerpted in the press produced numerous references by Mr Bossi and his followers to the need to organise street demonstrations and "beat up as many people as possible".

In one outburst to a party secretary from Venice, Mr Bossi looked forward to the day he could take his revenge on those political forces now out to destroy him: "We'll all have machine-guns in our hands, and it will be an enormous pleasure to despatch the maximum possible number of those pieces of s- to the next world."

Although Mr Bossi and his 40 fellow separatists under investigation have yet to be sent to trial, the political world was quick to react to the leaked telephone taps with sentiments of unequivocal condemnation. "These are statements of exceptional seriousness," said Fabio Mussi, parliamentary floor leader of the main government party, the left-wing PDS. "I urge all citizens of the north and especially those who vote for the League to make themselves heard and stop Bossi."

The revelations were a clear embarrassment to the Northern League, which has in recent years stopped all public talk of "oiling the Kalashnikovs" and tried to depict its campaign for independence for the affluent north as a Gandhi-style struggle based on non-violence.

Alberto Mazzonetto, the Venice secretary who had the "machine-gun" conversation with Mr Bossi, yesterday tried to explain away the strong language as no more than a joke, and strongly rejected a suggestion by the Verona- based public prosecutor, Guido Papalia, that the League leadership displayed Fascist tendencies.

But numerous public figures yesterday wondered what a magistrate was doing tapping the phone conversations of sitting parliamentarians without permission, and also how evidence supposedly kept sub judice could find its way into the columns of the daily press.

Mr Bossi's number two, Roberto Maroni, said his party would consider suing Judge Papalia for violation of the constitution and the law on phone- tapping. The League would also boycott any trial in which its members were involved.

It was hard to tell just how serious the leaks might prove for Mr Bossi. He is known for his flights of florid language, few of which seem to be backed up by concrete signs of menace.

On the other hand, Mr Bossi's rhetoric has sharpened considerably of late. In a recent attack on Rome he described it as being filled with "pigs" and "bastards" - something which this week earned him a libel writ from the city's mayor, Francesco Rutelli.