Comedy turns to tears after shooting at anti-Mafia gig

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An anti-Mafia benefit performance by the Oscar-winning comedian Roberto Benigni turned into a fiasco when a gunman shot a security guard, seriously wounding him in the legs. Benigni at first shrugged off the incident as "explosions of joy" over his show in the crime-ridden southern region of Calabria, but then burst into tears.

Minutes before the shots rang out in the central piazza of the city of Cosenza, the actor – who won an Oscar for his performance in the 1997 tragi-comedy Life Is Beautiful – had paid tribute to the bravery of Calabrians. He said their stereotypical image of being dominated by the vicious Calabrian version of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra – the 'Ndrangheta – was unjustified. "Calabria is not the region of the 'Ndrangheta but the region where people are fighting the 'Ndrangheta," he said. "The 'Ndrangheta is one of many ills and I am challenging it as a comedian."

Trouble at the show, in which Benigni recited scenes from Dante's Inferno, began when Claudio Azzinari, a known criminal, was caught by security staff and ejected after trying to force open a stage door to watch the concert without a ticket. One of the guards, Mario Fiore Diego, 22, then caught Azzinari, 45, trying to climb a fence to get in. Police said the two men argued before Azzinari went home to collect a .32 calibre pistol. He returned and fired six shots at Mr Diego, hitting him in the legs and thigh. Police arrested the gunman on charges of attempted murder, while Mr Diego was taken to hospital for surgery.

Benigni initially thought the shots were fireworks, which are often used in southern cities on hot summer evenings. "What's this? The Inferno here as well?" the Tuscan actor asked the audience before weeping openly and then continuing the show to the end.

His solo performance was one of a series of events arranged after the vendetta slaying of six Calabrian emigrants in Germany cast a cloud over the region.

Tuesday night's benefit included young people from the Mob-ridden city of Locri speaking about their hopes for a future free of organised crime. "We heard these lads talking about Locri and it was beautiful because they understood the future has to be built by everyone," Benigni added.