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Up to 200 Italian police ‘ran parallel anti-terror force’

by John Philips
THE INDEPENDENT [1]

Up to 200 police offi­cers and for­mer intel­li­gence oper­a­tives are being inves­ti­gat­ed by Ital­ian mag­is­trates on charges of organ­is­ing an ille­gal “par­al­lel” police force to com­bat ter­ror­ism.

The shad­owy group appears to have set itself up as a pri­vate secu­ri­ty firm, offer­ing pro­tec­tion to senior fig­ures, and illic­it­ly using offi­cial police resources. Its lead­ers have been accused of “usurp­ing” pub­lic func­tions and ille­gal usie of clas­si­fied data.

Judge Francesco Lal­la, Genoa’s chief pros­e­cu­tor, said the self-styled “Depart­ment for Anti-ter­ror­ist Strate­gic Stud­ies,” (Dssa) main­tained an arse­nal of weapon­ry, stored by its accused com­man­ders Gae­tano Saya and Ric­car­do Sin­da­co, both with links with the Ital­ian far right. The rev­e­la­tions have height­ened many Ital­ians’ unease about the strate­gies of the gov­ern­ment of Sil­vio Berlus­coni, the Prime Min­is­ter, against Islamist ter­ror­ism.

Judi­cial sources said the Dssa recruit­ed from police, para­mil­i­tary cara­binieri, finance police and the armed ser­vices and pre­sent­ed itself to Ital­ian insti­tu­tions as well as poten­tial recruits as an elite body spe­cial­is­ing in fight­ing Islam­ic and Marx­ist ter­ror­ism.

Mr Saya, now under house arrest, had applied for €32m (£21.6m) in Euro­pean Union finance and had alleged­ly sought con­tact with the Vat­i­can to try to obtain a con­tract to pro­tect of Pope Bene­dict against ter­ror­ist attack.

Mag­is­trates focused on the Dssa after it alleged­ly claimed to have a video of the mur­der in Iraq of the Ital­ian hostage Fab­rizio Qua­troc­chi and tried to sell the footage. Inves­ti­ga­tors are try­ing to deter­mine what offi­cial sup­port the organ­i­sa­tion may have had.

The Inte­ri­or Min­is­ter, Giuseppe Pisanu, has sus­pend­ed dozens of police offi­cers who joined the net­work. But Car­lo Taormi­na, an MP from Mr Berlus­coni’s Forza Italia par­ty, insists Dssa was a bona fide secu­ri­ty com­pa­ny with noth­ing to hide and “the high com­mands of the police and intel­li­gence ser­vices were aware of its exis­tence”.

Il Mes­sag­gero quot­ed an inves­ti­ga­tor who said it was par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­turb­ing that phone inter­cepts sug­gest­ed Dssa mem­bers had been plan­ning to kid­nap Cesare Bat­tisti, a Red Brigades activist liv­ing in exile in Paris. “We were see­ing the gen­e­sis of some­thing sim­i­lar to the death squads in Argenti­na,” the mag­is­trate is report­ed to have said.

The group was charged with mak­ing unau­tho­rised use of inte­ri­or min­istry data bank infor­ma­tion as well as equip­ping cars with sirens and flash­ing lights and the offi­cial “lol­lipop” sticks, used by Ital­ian police to stop traf­fic or wave as they break traf­fic reg­u­la­tions.

Gilber­to Di Benedet­to, an asso­ciate of Mr Saya who act­ed as a mid­dle­man with the Vat­i­can, said most mem­bers had joined the Dssa in good faith, despite its far­ci­cal aspect. “There were peo­ple who were hop­ing for pow­er or to become pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tors, but there also were many police offi­cers and sergeants who believed the Dssa would advance their careers,” he said.

La Repub­bli­ca news­pa­per quot­ed Michael Scheuer, a for­mer CIA agent and head of the “Bin Laden unit” at CIA head­quar­ters in Lan­g­ley, Vir­ginia, until last Novem­ber, as say­ing the head of Italy’s mil­i­tary intel­li­gence agency Sis­mi had autho­rised the CIA to abduct Abu Omar, a mil­i­tant Islam­ic cler­ic who was flown from Milan to Egypt and report­ed­ly tor­tured.

Mr Berlus­coni’s gov­ern­ment denies knowl­edge of the affair, which became pub­lic after Milan mag­is­trates issued arrest war­rants for 13 CIA agents.