ROME – Acting on a tip that a Serbian plane was carrying a bomb, Italian authorities on high alert for Pope John Paul II’s funeral Friday scrambled F-16 fighter jets to force down one plane, while police stopped another on the ground from taking off, the Air Force said.
No threat was found on either plane, but the action tested the high-strung defenses Italy put in place to protect some 200 dignitaries and millions of pilgrims who flocked to Rome for the funeral. Both incidents occurred about three hours after the ceremonies ended.
Two F-16 jet fighters warplanes intercepted a rented executive jet and forced it to land at a military airport about 25 miles southwest of Rome at 4:18 p.m. local time after receiving a tip that it was carrying a bomb, said Maj. Gen. Luciano Massetti, the Air Force chief of staff.
He said the tip came from a country that he declined to identify.
The Lear Jet 131, which had a Serbian tail number and a Serbian crew, was searched by paramilitary carabinieri officers who found nothing, Massetti said.
The plane came from Belgrade and was hired to pick up the president of Macedonia and his delegation and take them back to Skopje.
“They were quite surprised,” Massetti said of the crew. The plane left for Macedonia later Friday.
The second plane was about to take off with the delegation from Serbia-Montenegro, but was held back and searched. Nothing was found and it too was cleared to leave, according to Massetti and the Serbia-Montenegro government.
Many of the dignitaries who attended the pope’s funeral were leaving when the forces moved into action. President Bush and his delegation left about two hours earlier.
Dozens of royalty and world leaders were in Vatican City for the funeral, which was attended by dignitaries from 138 countries.
Massetti said Ciampino airport was closed to commercial traffic to leave room for 54 planes carrying official delegations to the funeral.