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Berlusconi joins long list of targeted politicians

The man who attacked Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi joins a long list of gatecrashers, shoe-throwers and other security breachers who have embarrassed, bruised and even killed leaders worldwide.
This video image made available by LA7-L'INFEDELE shows Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi being struck in the face by a statuette hurled by an attacker at the end of a rally in Milan, Italy on Dec. 13. Livio Anticoli / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The souvenir-flinging man who attacked Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi joins a long list of gatecrashers, shoe-throwers and other security breachers who have embarrassed, bruised and even killed leaders worldwide.

As Berlusconi remained hospitalized Tuesday with a broken nose and two broken teeth, officials pledged to review security measures while deflecting mounting criticism of the premier's bodyguards.

A man with a history of psychological problems bloodied Berlusconi's face Sunday with a souvenir statuette of Milan's Duomo cathedral as the leader ventured into the crush of a political rally in the northern Italian city.

Italy's debate follows a familiar pattern: How much security is necessary when politicians seek to mingle with their public?

"The security failed because, as usual, Berlusconi did what you should never do: Seek direct contact with the crowd," said Andrea Nativi, a researcher at the Rome-based Military Center for Strategic Studies.

Public appearances and leaders who walk the streets unprotected are a magnet not just for terrorists but for political protesters, publicity seekers and people with psychological problems.

Uninvited guests at White House
U.S. President Barack Obama has acknowledged "a screw-up" last month when two uninvited guests managed to get into a White House dinner and came into contact with the U.S. leader. Three uniformed Secret Service officers have been placed on leave while the security breach is investigated.

Last year's attempt by an Iraqi journalist to hit U.S. President George W. Bush with his shoes has been copied around the world. Victims include Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who was targeted by a student during a speech at Cambridge University.

The quality of security at the European Union was called into question last week when the environmental group Greenpeace managed to gatecrash a summit of the 27-nation bloc's leaders in Brussels. And in March an environmentalist threw a green liquid at Britain's Peter Mandelson, then the business secretary, as he arrived for a conference aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

Other breaches have proven deadly.

In the Netherlands, security around government officials was tightened following the assassination of populist politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002.

A year later, the murder of Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh raised concerns over whether politicians should still feel free to stroll the streets of Stockholm with their families. The Swedish Security Police did increase bodyguards for politicians.

Other attacks
In 1990, Germany's then-Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was shot by a psychologically disturbed man during a political rally. Schaeuble, who today is Germany's finance minister, was left paralyzed from the waist down.

Nativi said that in Italy, which suffered waves of terrorism and political violence in the 1970s and 1980s, bodyguards should know better than to allow Berlusconi to wade into a cheering crowd as the premier often does.

The conservative leader, a polarizing figure in Italy, was previously targeted in 2005, when a man struck him in the head with a camera tripod, lightly injuring him as he walked in Rome's bustling Piazza Navona.

Another leader who is considered vulnerable is Pope Benedict XVI. He regularly greets the faithful in St. Peter's Square while on a slow-moving, open jeep — a practice that continues although his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was shot in 1981 during one such appearance.

Nativi said Italy could take a page from the United States, whose Secret Service is specifically tasked with protecting the president. While Italy's internal intelligence agency is officially in charge of guaranteeing Berlusconi's safety, the security detail is provided by a mix of local police, secret agents and personal bodyguards.

"There is no high-ranking official who has enough authority to tell him: You shouldn't do that," Nativi said in a telephone interview.

Franscesco Rutelli, an opposition lawmaker who heads a parliamentary commission in charge of overseeing Italy's intelligence agencies, said that security arrangements would be reviewed.

Tense political climate
Interior minister Roberto Maroni insisted that nothing was wrong with the premier's security and blamed the attack on the country's increasingly tense political climate.

"All checks have been carried out," Maroni told reporters Monday after a meeting to discuss the matter. He said Berlusconi "has the right to get close to his supporters because this is what democracy and politics mean."

The Italian press criticized the failure of Berlusconi's security detail to keep the crowd, and the attacker, at a distance.

It also questioned why, after bodyguards pushed Berlusconi into a car, the premier's motorcade remained at a standstill and the leader was allowed to exit the vehicle, apparently to show the crowd he was fine, even though nobody knew then that the attacker was alone.

"That was something out of this world. The first thing you do in such a case is grab the leader and drive," Nativi said. "This was not a terrorist attack. But had it been one, he would be dead."