(AP)CAIRO, Egypt – A statement purportedly written by an al-Qaida-linked group threatened to launch attacks on Italian soil if Premier Silvio Berlusconi remains in office.
The statement, signed by the Brigades of Abu Hafs al-Masri and posted Friday on an Internet site known for carrying extremist Islamic content, follows the expiration of a three-month offer of a terrorism truce purportedly made by Osama bin Laden to European states, including Italy.
“Either you get rid of the inefficient Berlusconi, or we will really burn Italy,” the undated statement said, adding, “Berlusconi is dragging you into more blood plus absolute slavery to America.”
There was no way to verify the authenticity of the statement.
The Italian government didn’t immediately respond to the new threat. Berlusconi, a staunch supporter of President Bush, said recently that the Italian contingent would stay in Iraq until democracy takes hold.
The premier, however, has faced strong opposition for his pro-U.S. stance, and many here have called for a troops’ withdrawal.
The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade is a shadowy group that takes its name from a top al-Qaida lieutenant who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan in 2001. It has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on Western targets, including the March 11 train bombings in Madrid. Counterterrorism experts question whether the group has any agents capable of launching attacks and say some of its claims are obviously false or exaggerated.
The latest statement attributed to the group urges Italians to get rid of their premier or “the next message will be on your land not on the Internet,” threatening to use “unconventional weapons” in a strike similar to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
“We are in Italy, and not one of you is safe so long as you refuse our sheik’s (bin Laden’s) offer (for a truce),” said the statement, which appeared in Italian and Arabic.
“We will turn his promise into reality. A bloodbath similar to Sept. 11 awaits you,” the statement said. “We are able to aim at qualitative targets with unconventional weapons that will cause a grand catastrophe.”
Italy sent 3,000 troops to Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein to help rebuild the country. The contingent is based in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
In November, a truck bombing at an Italian barracks in southern Iraq killed 19 Italians, the country’s worst military loss since World War II. In May, an Italian soldier died of wounds suffered in a battle with militants believed loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.