A parliamentary commission set up by Silvio Berlusconi has concluded that the KGB was behind the 1981 plot to kill Pope John Paul II.
A draft of the commission's final report, leaked yesterday, said: "This commission believes, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the leaders of the Soviet Union took the initiative to eliminate the Pope Karol Wojtyla."
But the credibility of the report was open to doubt because its author is a close ally of the Prime Minister. In the past the work of the commission, named after the KGB double-agent Vassily Mitrokhin who fled to Britain in 1992 , has been seen as a sophisticated effort to stigmatise Italian Communists - once closely linked to the Soviets - as enemies of Italy and of the Catholic Church.
John Paul II was shot at close range on 13 May 1981 by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk. Interrogated by Italian police, Agca initially said the assassination attempt was commissioned by the Soviets, but changed his story repeatedly. He was released from prison in Turkey on 12 January this year, but was re-arrested when prosecutors said he must serve more time for murdering a Turkish journalist.
It is the first time the Soviet Union has been formally blamed for the assassination attempt, although the report has no bearing on any judicial investigations, which were concluded years ago.
Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service spokesman, Boris Labusov, denied the allegations. He said: "All assertions of any kind of participation in the attempt on the Pope's life by Soviet special services, including foreign intelligence, are completely absurd."
In 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev denied there was any complicity by the KGB in the plot.
The commission's report also alleged that a photograph showed that Sergei Antonov, a Bulgarian man acquitted of involvement in the assassination attempt, was in St Peter's Square when the pontiff was shot.
The Bulgarian secret service was allegedly working for Soviet military intelligence, though evidence was insufficient to convict the Bulgarians in the plot.
Mr Antonov's lawyer, Giuseppe Consolo, said the man in the photograph had come forward during the investigation as an American tourist of Hungarian origin. Mr Consolo added that the photo was not used as evidence in the trial. "Since Mr Antonov is alive and well in Bulgaria, they should make a comparison with the physical person, not with other photos," he said.
Paolo Guzzanti, the head of the Mitrokhin Commission, is a senator in Berlusconi's party, Forza Italia, and associate editor of Il Giornale, the paper owned by Berlusconi's brother Paolo. In 2003 he published an article in The Spectator defending Berlusconi and Mussolini.
Mr Berlusconi is in the habit of stigmatising his opponents, political and judicial, as "communists", and with a finely balanced general election due in a month, an authoritative-sounding denunciation of communist perfidy is grist to the electoral mill.
John Paul II said in his book, Memory and Identity: Conversations Between Millenniums, of the assassination attempt: "Someone else planned it, someone else commissioned it."