Italian police have arrested six Red Brigades suspects they claim are the ultra-left murderers of a government consultant on labour law, Massimo D'Antona, who was shot dead outside his home in Rome in May 1999.
They also hinted that the same people were behind the killing of another labour law consultant, Marco Biagi, killed outside his home in Bologna in March 2002.
The government claimed the arrests had struck at the heart of an ultra-left organisation that flourished in Italy's so-called "years of lead" in the 1970s and 1980s, when hundreds of citizens were killed in terrorist attacks, but which refused to lie down and die when the times changed.
In an all-night operation involving 1,000 officers, police picked up three suspects in Rome, two in Tuscany and one in Sardinia. Four were men and two were women.
News of the arrests came as millions of Italian workers downed tools for a half-day general strike in protest at government proposals for pension reform which will require employees to work for longer to qualify for state pensions which at present allow many to retire as early as age 57.
The Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, told journalists, "These arrests are a serious blow to the organisation of the new Red Brigades." He added that the authorities "had absolute and consistent proof of the participation [of those arrested] in both the planning and execution of the murder of Professor Massimo D'Antona".
Police said the investigation was still in progress and more arrests were expected.
Professor D'Antona and Professor Biagi were drafted in by successive Italian governments to advise on reforming Italy's highly protected system of labour law, which has been blamed for the country's lacklustre economic performance.
The breakthrough that led to Thursday night's arrests came on 2 March this year. During a police identity check on a train from Rome to Florence, a fugitive member of a Red Brigades splinter group, Nadia Lioce, got into a gunfight in which one policeman and Lioce's travelling companion, also sought by the police, were killed.
According to police, the two were carrying a spy camera hidden in a cigarette packet, a road map of central Italy, a palm top computer, mobile telephones and lists of names and addresses, as well as guns. Examination of these items led police to the six who were arrested this week.
The murders of professors D'Antona and Biagi were both claimed by a group called the Red Brigades-Combatant Communist Party. The killings were the first indications for many years that Italy's "red terrorists" were back in business. Police said that the same pistol was used to kill both men.
After the murder of Professor Biagi, the Red Brigades splinter group put a 26-page document on the internet explaining that he had been killed because he was working for a government that "represents the interests of bourgeois imperialism", and his reforms were a "regulation of the exploitation of salaried workers". Six weeks after her arrest, Nadia Lioce sent a handwritten note to prosecuting magistrates in Rome, claiming responsibility for "organising the actions against Massimo D'Antona and Marco Biagi". She is being held in jail in Florence and has yet to stand trial.
Despite the efforts of those who claim to have killed the men to identify themselves with workers' rights, Italian trade unions and left-wing parties have been quick to distance themselves. Sergio Cofferati, the former general secretary of CGIL, a major union, said after Professor Biagi's murder: "The Italian trade unions will fight against terrorism, to defend democracy." Another leading unionist said the killers were not part of the labour movement but "represent a small minority of murderers".
¿ Millions of Italians from the Alps to Sicily staged a half-day strike yesterday against government plans to reform the pensions system, snarling public transport, closing factories and shutting schools.Reuse content