Anarchy in the EU: Labour MEP is the parcel bombers' latest target

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The Independent Online

Like most politicians, Gary Titley has faced hostile crowds and angry hecklers. But, last night, Labour's most senior Euro MP, described how a parcel bomb burst into flames in his Manchester office spewing flames and acrid smoke.

In two weeks at least seven packages have been sent to the EU's politicians and officials in a campaign of intimidation stretching from Manchester to Frankfurt and Bologna to Brussels. After the wave of demonstrations at its summit, the EU is coming to terms with a new and dangerous form of protest - as the letter bomb campaign reaches new heights, targeting Europe's elected politicians.

The attacks, attributed to a shadowy group of Italian anarchists, may not have the hallmarks of professional terrorism but the effects have been frightening enough.

When a package, addressed to Mr Titley, leader of the party's 28 MEPs, burst into flames at about 11am yesterday, witnesses say it made a noise "like a party popper", and filled the office with flames and smoke. Mr Titley described how his secretary began to open the padded envelope - the last item in her large pile of Christmas mail - bearing the postmark from Bologna, the source of all the parcel bombs.

"It began to emit smoke. She threw it to the ground but, by then, it was alight - it had burst into flames," said Mr Titley, "My office manager ran in and literally jumped up and down on it, putting out the flames. Obviously that was a pretty brave thing to do.

Alerted by the secretary's screams, by the time the office manager Roger Fellows arrived on the scene he found flames were above the level of the desk.

Mr Fellows said: "We managed to smother them without calling the fire brigade, But as soon as we realised what it was, we called the police. We were both pretty shaken."

Neither of Mr Titley's staff was but injured but the MEP, who went to the scene straight after package exploded, was unequivocal in his condemnation of the attackers.

He said: "Anyone who sends packages like this knows that politicians do not open packages themselves if they are sent to their offices. It is opened by their staff, and targeting staff is pretty despicable".

There was damage from burnt papers, and the odour of smoke was "terrible", he said.

Last night, constituency workers were still trying to clear up the debris as the bomb squad, Greater Manchester Police and forensic experts descended on the office in the Radcliffe area outside the city centre It was a similar scene in Brussels where, about an hour earlier yesterday, a letter bomb exploded at the European Parliament building. Security services also identified at least one other dangerous package.

The package that exploded was addressed to Hans-Gert Pöttering, leader of the centre-right bloc that forms the biggest grouping in the parliament. He was travelling from Osnabruck in Germany to Brussels at the time.

A second device was sent to a senior centre-right Spanish MEP, Jose Ignacio Salafranca. It was taken away unopened by police and later described as dangerous.

Meanwhile, a suspicious parcel addressed to the leader of the Conservatives' MEPs, Jonathan Evans, turned out to be harmless.

Throughout the European Parliament yesterday, there was a rising sense of unease. Questions were being raised about security in buildings which many see as soft targets.

As one official put it last night: "Once Gary Titley received his package, concern went up one level. People are just getting back to their offices and there is a fear this might be more widespread."

Pat Cox, president of the European Parliament, described the campaign as a "criminal conspiracy against democracy."' Meanwhile, anti-terrorism officials from around Europe set up a task force to look into the recent spate of bombs. Italy will lead the force to monitor the "anarchist-insurrectionalist phenomenon" over the next two months, the Interior Ministry said in a statement, after a meeting of anti-terror experts from Italy, Spain, Greece, the Netherlands, Germany and France, as well as Europol officials.

In Brussels, offices of the European Parliament were evacuated and bomb disposal experts called. The letter bombs, which appeared to contain a book or video, all bore the same Bologna postmark as an incendiary package sent to the Italian home of European Commission President, Romano Prodi, on 27 December. It was that attack which first alerted the world to the threat.

The parcel contained a book and burst into flames while he was opening it. Mr Prodi was shaken but unhurt.

A group calling itself the "Informal Anarchic Federation" claimed responsibility for those devices. It said it had planted the bombs to "hit at the apparatus of control that is repressive and leading the democratic show that is the new European order".

The message went on to say that the attacks were carried out to make sure that Mr Prodi "knows that the manoeuvres have only begun to get close to him and others like him".

During the Christmas break more letter bombs were sent to the European Central Bank's president, Jean-Claude Trichet, in Frankfurt, and the EU's public prosecution and police-coordination offices in The Hague. The devices were defused.

Though there was no claim of responsibility for yesterday's attacks, the similarities to the earlier parcel bombs were striking. The packages probably arrived at the parliament some days ago but were only discovered yesterday when staff returned to work after the Christmas break. "They may have got through security before the parcel sent to Prodi came to light", said one official, "but remained sitting here for a couple of weeks".

Another possibility is the procedures in place were geared to detect explosives, rather than incendiary devices.

Nevertheless, staff were angry that packages posted in Bologna got through the screening procedures to which all parcels are subjected when delivered by post.

Belgian MEP Nelly Maes, leader of the European Free Alliance group of Euro-MPs, said: "This incident warrants not only thorough investigation in itself but we also need a full review of security procedures for mail delivered to the European Parliament.

David Harley, the European Parliament's chief spokesman, said: "The European Parliament deals with a surprisingly large volume of mail: about 100,000 items over the past three weeks. Packages will be scanned and, 99 times out of 100, the system will work.

"We need to be able to trace and track the package in as much detail as possible and move to take any necessary action as soon as possible. A decision will be taken as to whether wee need to move up in security." Security at the parliament's other site, in Strasbourg, is also being reviewed.

Bob Fitzhenry, spokesman for the centre-right EPP-ED group, two of whose members were targeted, said: "I do not think you would scare politicians in this way but it was unpleasant and unacceptable and I think this is the first time that members of parliament have been targeted in this way".

Some in the European Parliament took a perverse pleasure in the fact an attack on the parliament at least recognised its growing importance. But Mr Titley took a different view. "This is an attack on our civilised society, trying to undermine the basis on which we live and the implications are very serious," he said.

"Ultimately you can never take complete precautions."

The bombers

By Peter Popham

A previously unknown group, styling itself the Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI), claimed responsibility for two small bombs that went off in rubbish bins outside the home of Romano Prodi, the EU President, days before he opened a parcel bomb himself.

The FAI, which apparently has a base in Bologna, had threatened a campaign against the "new European order" just days before the device targeted Mr Prodi on 27 December.

Italian authorities blame these shadowy "anarcho-insurrectionists" for the full series of bombs.

A senior Bologna policeman said he believed the group is connected to Spanish anarchists. He said the same international network carried out a similar campaign against Spanish targets one year ago.

German investigators said they were looking at "members of an Italian group that are close to the anarchist spectrum" after the head of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, was targeted in Frankfurt.

But there is plenty of doubt about this explanation within the Italian media. The Federation of Italian Anarchists - which also has the initials FAI - has strong views on the subject. This Federation has a tidy, well-organised website as well as affiliated groups around the country (though none in Bologna), and a history dating back to 1944. The real FAI has denounced the attacks, and considers the other FAI to be "imaginary", invented to justify the repression of anarchists.

There are plenty of precedents in Italy for the far right carrying out terrorist actions and "framing" the left: during the 1970s, neo-Fascists executed bomb attacks, notably in Bologna, as part of a "strategy of tension" designed to justify the imposition of military rule.