Mafia war blamed for shooting of six Italian men in Germany

An egg thrown at a carnival led to the slaughter of six young men in a mafia execution in Germany. The bullet-riddled bodies of five Italians were discovered early yesterday in cars parked near Duisburg railway station.

A sixth victim was alive when police reached the scene but died from his wounds on the way to hospital in what police believe was a classic mafia hit - the result of a vendetta between two mob families who both come from the Italian city of San Luca.

The Strangio-Nirta crime family have been at war with a rival underworld dynasty for 16 years - ever since a member of the first family threw an egg at a member of the Pelle-Romeo clan at San Luca in 1991. Fifteen people have been killed since then, five in the last eight months with eight more seriously hurt.

Both clans belong to the Calabrian Mafia, known as the N'drangheta, and are based in the city of Reggio Calabria. Hundreds of Calabrian gangsters from San Luca live in Duisburg, a city in western Germany, carrying on drug trafficking under the cover of legitimate occupations. It is claimed they have bought up many of the city's best hotels and restaurants and use them to recycle the profits of the drug trade.

"There is a very strong Calabrian presence in Germany," said Luigi de Sena, former prefect of Reggio Calabria, "but until now it has kept a low profile in order not to attract attention."

After the egg-throwing incident, according to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, "the vendetta of San Luca was born". According to police in Italy, the Pelle-Romeo family took revenge by shooting dead Francesco Strangio, 20, and Domenico Nirta, 19, with two others left injured.

Over the next nine years there was a series of tit-for-tat killings by both clans until a truce was called in 2000 which held until Christmas Day 2006 when Maria Strangio, 33-year-old wife of godfather Giovanni Nirta,was shot dead on her doorstep and her five-year-old nephew was injured by a stray bullet.

The Duisburg victims were aged between 16 and 39 and were all unarmed. Yesterday morning friends and relatives of the men were seen being comforted by the police at the scene.

One cried out "Sebastiano! Sebastiano!" as she was led weeping into a police van. This was for Sebastiano Strangio, 39, the eldest man to die.

The Italian Interior Minister Giuliano Amato said: "This is the coda of a feud between families, the author of which was one of those killed. It appears he was worried because he seems to have been looking for weapons to defend himself.

"Prosecutors had already identified him as the man responsible for the San Luca attack, but the killers got to him first. Now we must be very careful to avoid a third act of the tragedy."

Italy's anti-mafia prosecutor Pietro Grassi said this massacre outside the country was "completely unprecedented".

The group had been celebrating the forthcoming 18th birthday of one of the victims, Tomasso Venturi, according to Italian news reports. They had enjoyed a party at the Da Bruno pizzeria, near to the massacre scene and owned by Giuseppe Strangio, who was also gunned down.

The others were Francesco and Marco Pergola, aged 20 and 22, and Marco Marmo, 25. The other victim aged 16 was not identified.

Police said Marmo and Strangio were known to police and were mafia members with convictions for drugs and arms.

Herrman-Josef Helmich, a police spokesman, said there were "no clues" so far as to the killers' identities. He confirmed that all the victims were in two vehicles and had been shot in the head from close range.

Some 70 shots were fired in all judging from the spent bullet cases found at the scene. Footage from nearby CCTV cameras is already being studied by the investigation team. Mr Helmich said there was "clearly" more than one assassin involved.

Duisburg has a high number of immigrants, many of them Italian. In one district of the city, Wedau, they account for 10 per cent of the population. The Italian Mafia has been operating at an increased level in Germany in recent years. Earlier this year a leaked classified intelligence report by the BND - Germany's MI5 - said two of the major clans of organised crime in Italy now have a "massive presence" in Germany.

The study said that in addition to drug running and money laundering, the N'drangheta have also invested millions of its profits in German hotels, restaurants and houses, especially along the Baltic coast and in eastern German states of Thuringia and Saxony.

According to the BND report leaked to a Berlin newspaper the N'drangheta, "act in close co-operation with Albanian mafia groups in moving weapons and narcotics across Europe's porous borders".

As part of its money laundering activities, the Mafia has bought up large packages of shares in companies listed on the Frankfurt stock exchange, particularly energy firms. Some clans have invested heavily in shares in Gazprom, the Russian natural gas supplier..

The bodies were found shortly after 2.30am after a cleaning lady on her way to work heard shots. She flagged down a police car that went to the scene and found the bodies in the cars.

"There was a strong smell of copper from the blood and there was still gunsmoke in the air," according to one local radio report. Heavy rain in the area has hampered police efforts to recover evidence. Meanwhile, the hunt is on for further witnesses.

The victims are undergoing autopsies today. Some investigators speculate that they had agreed to a meet their killers, not knowing that they were walking into a trap.

This morning police will hold an urgent meeting in Reggio Calabria to thrash out the details of the inquiry and measures to prevent further attacks.

Egg that hatched the vendetta of San Luca

San Luca in Calabria was for years a centre of Italy's notorious kidnapping business. Subsequently its proximity to the coast made it an ideal landfall for the drug trade.

So the egg-throwing incident between two Mafia clans in the village piazza which sparked the feud that culminated yesterday in the killing of six unarmed men in Germany was only the pretext for violence. The vendetta's true meaning was a struggle for control of the territory.

It was at the Carnival of 1991 that the eggs flew and led to a violent row between the Strangio-Nirta clan and the Pelle-Romeo clan, in which two people were killed and two others wounded.

Five other murders and six attempted murders followed, then a truce held for several years. It was broken last year when Maria Strangio, the 33-year-old wife of a gangster just out of prison was shot dead on her doorstep. Her death re-started the feud.

From obscure relatives of the Cosa Nostra and the Camorra, in recent years the N'drangheta have become one of the most feared gangs. But for law-abiding locals, San Luca has become the village of the damned.

Peter Popham

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