Pope's summer residence evacuated as WWII ordnance exploded

Sept. 12, 2013 at 12:03 AM
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CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, Sept. 12 (UPI) -- The pope's summer residence along with 400 residents of a Rome suburb were evacuated this week as two massive unexploded World War II bombs were detonated.

The 17th century papal palace at the village of Castel Gandolfo, 15 miles south of central Rome, was closed as nearby residents evacuated Tuesday as explosive experts detonated bombs of 130 and 100 pounds found along the shores of Lake Albano, Corriere della Sera reported.

The still-active bombs, dropped by British forces during World War II during the Allied invasion of Italy, were discovered in the lake basin after lower water levels exposed them, along with 4,000 other pieces of ammunition.

Along with the two bombs, some 2,300 hand grenades, 300 mortar bombs and hundreds of bullets were also found in the basin.

The finds raised fears for the safety of tourists at Lake Albano, which draws thousands of visitors every year not only to the papal residence but also to the scenic volcanic crater lake itself.

The ordnance was found immediately adjacent to the areas frequented by tourists and just a short walk from the pope's residence, the newspaper said.

Air, rail and ocean traffic in the area were suspended and people living within 1,600 feet of the blast site were forced to leave before the operation by the Italian army's bomb squad, with several elderly residents directed to a theater in the village.

Castel Gandolfo Mayor Milvia Monachesi had urged the cooperation of all the town's citizens in what turned out to be a very busy day for public safety officials.

"We are aware of the inconvenience and will do our best to reduce it as much as possible," she said, "but we need to ensure the safety of all, considering the danger of the bombs."

The operation, carried out by hundreds of soldiers with the help of local fire brigades, police, forest rangers, civil defense volunteers and the Red Cross, was conducted in two phases, online newspaper Blitz Quotidiano reported.

In the first and most delicate phase, the bomb squad manually extracted the bombs, and in the second, they were carefully transported to a quarry in the village of Ciampino, where they were detonated.

The disruptions came during a summer in which Pope Francis, elected in March, has not taken up residence at Castel Gandolfo -- a first for a pope since 1945. He has made just two one-day visits on July 14 and Aug. 15 while tending to a busy schedule during the first few months of his papacy, the Catholic News Service said.

That has resulted in a drop in visitors.

"There has been an obvious decline in religious tourism," Monachesi told the publication, "but the town is working hard to increase all types of tourism year round and it's starting to bear fruit.

"We hope the pope will come next year. We can't force him to come, but neither should we rely only on him."

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