President says bombs will not halt renewal: Italy's leaders respond to campaign of terror by calling for a new urgency in reforms, writes Fiona Leney in Rome

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ITALY'S President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, yesterday declared that the bomb blasts that ripped through the heart of Rome and Milan claiming five lives would not be allowed to halt the cleansing of Italian public life.

The President said that the unidentified culprits were 'trying to create a power vacuum in a time of transition'. As forensic teams in Rome and Milan picked through the piles of rubble in search of clues, speculation grew over the possible involvement of maverick members of the secret services - speculation fuelled by the resignation yesterday of the secret service chief, Angelo Finocchiaro.

Commentators across the political spectrum have long questioned the integrity and accountability of Mr Finocchiaro's organisation. They noted that despite being implicated directly and indirectly in terrorist acts over the past 25 years the service has never conducted any serious internal investigations. 'This is the work of the murderous elements of an old regime that is seeing its last vestiges of power melt away' said Giuseppe Ayala, a former anti-Mafia investigator.

Two previous bombings in May, including the one that wrecked Florence's Uffizi Gallery and killed five people, were officially blamed on the Mafia. The most popular theory links organised crime, uncontrollable elements of the secret services and the banned P2 Masonic lodge in an alliance to thwart reform. Yesterday's bombings were claimed by the 'Armed Falange' an obscure group that said it planted the Uffizi bomb, but whose claims the authorities regard with extreme scepticism.

The Prime Minister, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, held a pre-dawn meeting with the President to report on an emergency session of the National Security Council. He later said that the bombs were 'attempts to create disorder and panic to slow the country's progress towards renewal'.

If that is the aim of the bombers, it could well be backfiring. Commentators joined politicians yesterday in declaring that the only answer to the campaign of terror being unleashed against the state was to complete the country's half-finished revolution. 'The transition is taking too long,' said L'Unita in a front page editorial. 'The interregnum between old and and new is allowing dark forces to make themselves felt.'

As details of the carnage emerged yesterday, thousands took to the streets of Milan and Rome in protest at the killings. Milan was paralysed for several hours as workers staged a sympathy strike. 'The people who do this are beasts, they should be lined up and shot,' said one woman at the site of the Milan car bomb. The three firefighters killed instantly in the blast had apparently realised the car was a giant bomb after seeing wires attached to a parcel in the driver's seat. They were trying to clear the area when it exploded. A traffic warden and a Moroccan man sleeping rough nearby died; 20 people were hurt, some seriously. The force hurled the shattered Fiat Uno on to the roof of the Museum of Modern Art.

In Rome daylight has revealed the extent of the damage to the basilica of St John Lateran and the church of San Giorgio in Velabro. Both were weakened and precious woodwork and frescoes have been destroyed; 18 people were injured in the two blasts, but no-one was killed.

There have been six bomb attacks since Mr Ciampi took office in April. As similarities in explosives and technique link the outrages, fears are growing that Italy is embarking on another long spell of murky terrorism such as that which marked the Seventies.

It was symptomatic of the mood across the country that commentators drew parallels with a clutch of five explosions in Milan and Rome on 12 December 1969 that killed 16 people and heralded the beginning of the 'years of lead' when both right and left sought to undermine the state with violence. The finger was pointed then at the security forces, in collusion with the right. Then, as now, Italian society was changing, led by student movements and a reinvigorated left. 'We are back in the nightmare of the years of lead; of the years of massacres,' commented Il Giorno.

Leading article, page 27

(Photograph and map omitted)