Italy mourns soldiers killed in Afghanistan

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Italy held a state funeral yesterday for six soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and teary-eyed relatives, officials and thousands of citizens saluted their flag-draped coffins and observed a national day of mourning.

Flags flew at half staff and public offices observed a minute of silence. The air force's precision flying team flew in unison over Rome, trailing the red-white-and-green smoke of the Italian flag as the funeral came to a close.

Thursday's attack in Kabul marked Italy's deadliest day yet in the Afghan conflict. At home, it rekindled a debate over Italian participation in the mission and the prospects for an end to the eight-year war.

In a traditional sign of respect, the crowd applauded as the six coffins were carried inside the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls by fellow soldiers. An honor guard saluted the coffins and many standing in the rain outside the basilica waved Italian flags.

In one of the most poignant moments of the ceremony, Martin Fortunato, the 7-year-old son of Lt. Antonio Fortunato, slipped out of his seat and gently touched his father's coffin as he wiped his eyes. A photo portrait of each man, along with his beret and medals, was placed on every coffin.

Pope Benedict XVI sent a telegram of condolences that was read during the ceremony, saying he was praying that God would "support those who are engaged daily in building solidarity, reconciliation and peace in the world."

Premier Silvio Berlusconi shook hands with relatives of the dead as he sought to comfort them, and President Giorgio Napolitano bowed his head before the coffins.

Some private businesses shut their doors for a few minutes during the ceremony, reports said. The funeral was broadcast live on state-run TV and other national broadcasters.

The roadside bombing in the Afghan capital also killed 10 Afghans and wounded four Italian soldiers who attended the funeral. Italy sent some 2,800 troops to Afghanistan, and added an extra 500 for the recent Afghan elections. The additional troops are expected to come back over the next few weeks, as had been planned, but Berlusconi said after the attack there would be no unilateral pullout of the contingent.