BRUSSELS — European Union offices were on heightened security alert Tuesday as investigators intensified the search for a shadowy Italian anarchist group suspected in a string of booby-trapped letters sent to EU officials in five countries.
No new mail bombs were reported, but bomb disposal experts rushed to Italy’s EU mission in response to a suspect letter that turned out to be harmless.
Tuesday’s false alarm underscored the nervousness at EU offices following the mailing of incendiary devices to at least seven EU officials and legislators since Christmas. Officials said all the letters appear to have been posted in Bologna, Italy on Dec. 22.
European counterterrorism experts set up a special task force in Rome. Experts said the evidence pointed to a small, loosely affiliated group, perhaps with roots in the anti-globalization movement.
A spokesman for Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, who received the first letter bomb at his Bologna home, said there were dozens of such groups in Italy, but added that the cell in Bologna was unlikely to be more than “12 or 15 people.”
“They have a very low level of organization, but they can be dangerous because they are unpredictable,” Marco Vignudelli said.
Investigations are focusing on a little-known anarchist group in Bologna that claimed responsibility for two small bombs that exploded outside Prodi’s home on Dec. 21.
The group, calling itself the “Informal Anarchic Federation,” indicated in a statement that more strikes would follow.
Prodi was again targeted Dec. 27 by the first letter bomb, which was addressed to his wife and ignited when he opened it at his home.
No one was injured in that incident, or two other letter bombs that went off — one in the Brussels office of a German conservative member of the European Parliament and another in the Manchester, England, office of a British socialist member.
“The package did have potential to cause injury and serious damage,” said Detective Inspector Simon Collier in Manchester.
A third booby-trapped letter was intercepted Monday in the Brussels office of a Spanish conservative in the Parliament. Similar devices have targeted homes orces of EU officials in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.
“This is a coordinated attack on all European institutions, and in my opinion the reason is quite clear: Europe is becoming more important politically and we must realize that we too as European institutions have become a target for terrorist attacks,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said on Germany’s ARD television.
Police in Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands said they were still examining the packages to determine the material used. Vignudelli said the package sent to Prodi contained a flammable powder connected to a chemical detonator.
“The information available to put these type of devices together is easy to get hold of, whether it’s on the Web or in so-called anarchist cookbooks,” said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
“If you have even limited technical expertise you can put one of these sort of devices together.”
EU officials said security services had stepped up routine screening of the 25,000 letters the organization’s head office receives on an average day.
“We are being careful, but we are not in panic,” said Svend Leon Clausen, head of the mail service in the European Parliament. “Of course we are a little bit worried that somebody has managed to smuggle something through the system.”
Although dangerous, security experts said the packages appeared designed more to frighten than hurt.
“It’s not really supposed to cause fatalities, they are meant to shake people up,” said Tom Chamberlain, Western European risk analyst with Control Risk Group, a business risk consultancy, in London.
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