Security blitz as Rome braces for visit by Bush

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The Independent Online

He is coming to receive the grateful thanks, 60 years on, of a liberated Italy, but President Bush's visit to Rome on Friday has prompted the biggest security blitz here for years.

He is coming to receive the grateful thanks, 60 years on, of a liberated Italy, but President Bush's visit to Rome on Friday has prompted the biggest security blitz here for years.

Intelligence sources believe that about 2,000 hard-line anti-American militants are making their way to Rome from all over the country, intending to disrupt the US President's visit in any way they can.

The possibility that the mayhem of the G8 meeting in Genoa three years ago could recur in Rome is probably being exaggerated for political reasons on both sides, but a leader of the Disobbedienti, a direct action group prominent in Genoa, made no secret of his group's intention to kick up a stink.

"I hope the American President gets the same welcome in Rome as his colleague Richard Nixon received in 1969," said Luca Casarini, a Disobbedienti member from the north-east. Arriving at the height of protests against the Vietnam War, President Nixon was greeted by violent demonstrations.

Mr Casarini said: "If a criminal of Bush's calibre is received with every honour rage is the right reaction ... In the face of the Iraqi massacre, I don't give a damn if some glass gets broken."

One demonstrator was shot dead and hundreds were wounded in Genoa after violent clashes between carabinieri and demonstrators. Shop windows and cash machines were smashed by rampaging protesters.

Yesterday authorities in Rome gave formal consent to a peace march that will cross the centre of the capital while Mr Bush is on the outskirts of the city at the Ardeatine caves, honouring hundreds of Italian civilians executed there by the Nazis in 1944. When the President crosses central Rome, at least 10,000 soldiers, police and carabinieri will be on duty to guard him. The precise route is secret, but it will take in the Qurinale, official residence of President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi; Palazzo Chigi, office of the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and the Vatican, where Mr Bush will have his second audience with Pope John Paul II, himself a vigorous opponent of the war in Iraq.

Army snipers and bomb disposal squads will be posted at strategic points, firemen will work double shifts, hundreds of kilometres of sewers and tunnels under Rome's ancient centre are being checked, and all drain covers in the city will be sealed shut. Air space within 10 miles of Villa Taverna, the American ambassador's residence where Mr Bush will stay on Friday night, will be closed for the duration of his visit, and Rome's two airports, Fiumicino and Ciampino, may also be closed for several hours.

Anti-war campaigners hope that at least 100,000 people will take to the streets in protest at President Bush's visit, even though Friday is a normal working day. Since last weekend, dress rehearsals for Friday have been held by protesters, some hooded like the Abu Ghraib detainee whose photograph alerted the world to abuse in the Iraqi jail, or dressed in orange and tightly bound like the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

While the Disobbedienti threaten mayhem, organisers of the protest including Piero Bernocchi, a member of Italy's Committee to Stop the War, pledged a peaceful demonstration in which "grandparents and children and all Italians who don't want the war" will take part.

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