Peril in Venice as St Mark's repels invaders

Police commando raid ends short-lived rule of rag-tag Venetian 'liberation' army

It was shortly after dawn yesterday morning when a lone male voice cut into regular radio programmes in Venice with a startling announcement.

"After 200 years, a regular unit of the Most Serene Venetian Army has tonight liberated St Mark's Square," the heavily accented voice said in a low monotone. "Long live St Mark, long live the Serenissima!"

It was not a joke. Or not entirely. Something really quite spectacular had indeed taken place in this lagoon city of a thousand romantic fantasies.

Shortly after midnight, a band of eight men dressed in battle fatigues had commandeered a vaporetto on the Grand Canal, loaded a home-made armoured car on board and ordered the pilot to take them to the Piazza.

Once there, they climbed up to the top of the campanile, unfurled a Venetian flag and set up a pirate radio antenna alongside their sleeping bags and enough food to last them several days. Thus began an all-night adventure that yo-yoed tragicomically between terrorist drama and costume farce.

The men claimed to be separatist guerrillas seeking to liberate Venice from the colonialist yoke of Rome, but were they serious? Were those real sub-machineguns they were brandishing or just toys? And what was all this nonsense about re-establishing the Venetian Republic two centuries after the collapse of the glorious maritime republic?

The police took no chances, cordoned off St Mark's Square and embarked on a five-hour negotiation to try to persuade the men to give themselves up peacefully. In the end, they mounted an early-morning commando raid, scaling the campanile with a telescopic ladder and successfully arresting the men without a shot being fired.

It is too soon to say who these pranksters were, but their escapade was certainly well-publicised ahead of time.

For weeks, separatists from the Veneto - angry about high taxes and the backwardness of the Italian south which they believe they are forced to subsidise - have been interrupting state radio and television broadcasts with propaganda about the "rotten and corrupt" Italian state and rallying all "indomitable fellow patriots of the Veneto" to rebel. The date they have been focusing on is this coming Monday, the bicentenary of the fall of the Venetian Republic and the day, according to the separatists, when the Veneto began its long servitude at the hands of outside forces.

They consider Italian unification, which was approved by the Venetians in an overwhelming popular vote in 1866, little different from preceding occupations under Napoleon and the Austrians.

Such rhetoric is too much even for Umberto Bossi, leader of Italy's northern separatists, who has found his own considerable talent for agitprop upstaged over and over by the more radical Venetians.

"This is no way to stage a revolution," Mr Bossi tut-tutted yesterday, his voice betraying just a hint of envy.

Mr Bossi's Northern League is planning to declare an Independent State of Padania, with Venice as its capital, in an half-clownish, half-serious ceremony in September.

If he is not careful, though, the Venetian crazies may well declare their independence from him first.

Siege against the Serenissima

1. The group commandeered a "vaporetto" ferry shortly after midnight to take them, a six-wheeled armoured vehicle they had built themselves and a camper van down the Grand Canal to St Mark's Square.

2. The eight-strong group raised a banner on the tower bearing the symbol of the Lion of St Mark and issued a statement describing themselves as soldiers of the "Most Serene Republic of Venice".

3. A team of 24 masked Carabinieri paramilitary police stormed the belltower and arrested the separatists whose protest has put secession back on the political agenda in Italy.

4. Police, who scaled part of the 99m (325ft) tower found a sub-machinegun and a quantity of ammunition.

The protesters face charges including membership of an armed band, subversion, kidnapping and illegal possession of weapons.

Police linked them to a shadowy group that has interrupted television news bulletins in the north-east for two months, with pirate broadcasts warning of a "spectacular action" to mark Monday's 200th anniversary of the fall of the Venice Republic.

Lost and found again: an old lady's independence

12 May 1797: The Venetian government votes itself out of office as Napoleon storms in. The people think that they are getting a revolution, but Napoleon sells them out to the Austrians who then begin a 59-year occupation of the city.

1848: The Venetian patriot Daniele Manin, seizing on the revolutionary mood across Europe, leads a popular revolt against the Austrians. The popular revolt lasts several months, but eventually fails.

1866: Following military defeats at both the hands of the French and the Prussians, the Austrians give up Venice which then becomes a part of the newly unified Italian state.

1979: The first northern separatist movements spring up in the Venice region, spreading gradually into Lombardy and Piedmont.

1996: The leader of the Northern League, Umberto Bossi, launches his "march on the Po" and makes Venice the seat of his largely symbolic rebel government.

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