Italy accuses US of scaremongering over warning of terrorist threat to tourists

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The Independent Online

On the eve of one of the most important weekends for cultural tourism in Italy, the authorities in Rome have accused the United States of scaremongering over a warning to US citizens that they could be terrorist targets in four major Italian cities over the Easter break.

On the eve of one of the most important weekends for cultural tourism in Italy, the authorities in Rome have accused the United States of scaremongering over a warning to US citizens that they could be terrorist targets in four major Italian cities over the Easter break.

The State Department issued advice about "possible threats to Americans holidaying in Venice, Florence, Milan and Verona on Easter Sunday from extremist groups".

It did not define what sort of terrorists might be involved, but warned that "these groups do not distinguish between official and civilian targets", urging people to avoid large crowds.

The warning has been widely criticised as a gift to al-Qa'ida, creating panic without their even having to load a gun. The Italian defence minister, Antonio Martino, said the US statement could "cause panic, even unintentionally". The interior ministry said there was no basis for the threat. Gerardo d'Ambrosio, Milan's leading magistrate, said "banging the drum over this sort of thing is a mistake – it is just what the terrorists want."

While tourist officials are alarmed about the impact of such a warning on one of the busiest periods of the year, there is no evidence that tourists are holing up in hotel rooms in fear. Nor were there signs of a greatly hiked-up security presence around Italy's cultural treasures.

In spring weather, crowds still flocked St Mark's Square in Venice, and the queue for the Uffizi gallery in Florence was as long as ever. Police in the four cities involved said they were stepping up security in airports and train stations.

La Stampa newspaper has quoted Vincenzo Cannistraro, a former CIA anti-terrorism chief working in Italy, as saying that the Italian authorities had information that a group of Egyptians had entered the country recently with the intention of carrying out a low-level operation such as firing on a crowd of American tourists in a piazza.

Washington has identified Italy as a key base for al-Qa'ida in Europe. Around 30 people have been arrested here on suspicion of links with Islamic terrorist groups since 11 September. Last month nine North Africans were arrested on suspicion of planning an attack on the US embassy in Rome.

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