Italy nabs 4 in alleged U.S. Embassy plot

By ERIC J. LYMAN   |   Feb. 20, 2002 at 8:01 AM

ROME, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- Italian authorities arrested four Moroccans after an anti-terror probe indicated they may have been working on a plot to attack the water supply at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, a police official told United Press International Wednesday.

The official from the Carabinieri, Italy's special paramilitary police, said the men had around 10 pounds of cyanide and detailed maps that highlighted the area around the embassy and its water supply routes. Additionally, the men had dozens of papers that would allow them to falsify documents foreigners must carry to remain legally in Italy.

"What is clear is that a plan of some kind was in the works," the official said. "But we don't have enough information at this point to know for sure if the target was the U.S. Embassy or perhaps a broader part of Rome's water supply that included the embassy."

An embassy spokesman declined to comment on the arrests. He said an official statement on the subject was being drafted.

Security officials outside the embassy in Rome's historic center said security had been tightened in the wake of the arrests.

The Carabinieri official said the arrests were part of an investigation into activities of those suspected of having ties to the al Qaida network and Osama bin Laden.

This is the second time in 13 months Italian police uncovered an alleged plot to attack the U.S. Embassy in Rome. In January 2001, a group of men suspected of having al Qaida ties was arrested with explosives and classified information about the embassy. At that point, the embassy closed operations for three days as security procedures were revamped.

After the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the embassy issued warnings to Americans in Italy that American symbols could become attack targets. Around the same time, Italian police broke up a ring of Tunisians in Milan they said were helping finance al Qaida and other terror groups. The trials for that group are just getting underway.

According to the Carabinieri source, the most recent arrests -- which reportedly came after the men had been followed for several days -- were tied to the lower-profile arrests of three other Moroccans last week. He said the investigation would continue.

For the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks, Italy took its search efforts public, with Italian Interior Ministry Undersecretary Alfredo Mantovano appearing on Italian television Wednesday to urge residents to be on the lookout for "suspicious activities" that could be linked to terror activity.

"This is a time when Italians must work together to make the country safer against terrorists," Mantovano said. "Every Italian resident can play his or her part."

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