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Rome to be virtually locked down for funeral

Despite facing an unprecedented flood of humanity arriving in Rome to pay respects to John Paul II, Rome's police chief on Thursday insisted his force is ready to deal with any plot to disrupt Friday morning’s funeral.
Anti-aircraft missiles are among the security measures Italian authorities are using to protect the dignitaries converging on Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II on Friday.
Anti-aircraft missiles are among the security measures Italian authorities are using to protect the dignitaries converging on Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II on Friday.Gregorio Borgia / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tucked behind ancient walls and iron gates, Vatican City is protected by Swiss Guards armed with halberds, a small but efficient secret service packing handguns and a special Italian police corps.

Neither their manpower nor their firepower is any match for the security challenge confronting the Vatican as it prepares to lay Pope John Paul II to rest. But Rome’s police chief, his forces on high alert for any plot to disrupt Friday morning’s funeral, insisted he’s ready.

“We have no time to be afraid,” the chief, Marcello Fulvi, told reporters Thursday, clenching his fists on his desk as he ticked off a long list of security and surveillance measures designed to thwart terrorists.

Asked about the possibility of a terrorist strike, he said police “do not have precise signals.”

Terror threat seen as overblown
A U.S. terrorism analyst suggested Thursday the threat was overblown.

“The obvious question that arises is what is the threat to the pope’s funeral? Most likely, no threat at all,” said Dennis Pluchinsky, a 28-year U.S. State Department veteran with TransSecur, a Washington-based company that provides corporations with global threat assessments.

“It is doubtful that any terrorist group would consider constructing an attack against these dignitaries given the level and scope of security around the Vatican and the short time frame for planning,” Pluchinsky said. “Six days is not enough time to plan a major attack on a hard target.”

As officials rushed to prepare for the funeral and tighten security for President Bush and leaders from more than 80 other countries, Rome’s mayor prepared to lock down the capital as a precaution.

A ban on car and truck traffic was to be imposed starting at 2 a.m. Friday and remain in place until 6 p.m. — a measure designed to help seal off a city of 3.7 million temporarily doubled in population by the extraordinary influx of pilgrims.

Extensive video monitoring
At the Rome police situation room, which has been coordinating funeral security with other law enforcement agencies, 30 officers were monitoring more than 50 large surveillance screens. Remote cameras let them zoom in on any suspicious activities at St. Peter’s Square, the Tiber River and key piazzas.

Fulvi said about 8,000 security agents would be in place for the funeral, including 2,000 uniformed police officers patrolling St. Peter’s and the boulevard leading up to it and another 1,400 plainclothes officers in the streets.

Authorities have been scrambling to secure the Vatican and the capital, their efforts complicated by “the exceptional nature of the event and the extremely short time we have had,” Fulvi said.

Among the expert forces being deployed are bomb disposal teams and anti-sabotage experts, all part of “a strategy of absolutely visible security,” he said.

Italy’s security agencies have arranged for snipers to take up positions on rooftops, a navy warship armed with torpedoes to cruise the coastline and anti-aircraft rocket launchers to be cocked at the sky to thwart any airborne attack.

NATO was sending an AWACS surveillance jet at the request of Italian authorities, something spokesman Robert Pszczel said “was done on many occasions” similar to Friday’s gathering of world leaders to mourn the pope.

Air space to be closed
Air space within a five-mile radius of Rome will be closed during the funeral, and traffic at Leonardo Da Vinci Airport will be reduced. On Thursday, officials shut down Rome’s Ciampino Airport, which is used for both civilian and military flights.

Officials acknowledge the sheer number of heads of state, monarchs and other VIPs at the funeral could present a tempting target to militants. Moreover, Italian prosecutors have been conducting an ongoing investigation into alleged al-Qaida cells in the northern city of Milan.

Security was noticeably tighter Thursday outside the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Rome, where Bush has been staying. The U.S. delegation includes former President George H.W. Bush and former President Clinton and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Among others attending the funeral are Britain’s Prince Charles and Prime Minister Tony Blair; U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan; French President Jacques Chirac; German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder; Mexican President Vicente Fox; and 150 other leaders and royals.

Many of the leaders’ bodyguards will carry weapons around St. Peter’s — a practice the Vatican frowns on but puts up with.

“It’s clear that there is an exceptional presence of heads of state never recorded before in Italy or in other parts of the world,” Fulvi said. “This obliges us to provide the highest levels of security regardless of any other consideration.”