MILAN (AP) -- Italian special operations forces arrested 24 suspected secessionists Wednesday who were allegedly planning a violent independence campaign for the wealthy northeastern Veneto region.
Police said the group had built an armored vehicle that they intended to deploy in St. Mark's Square in Venice -- reminiscent of a 7 ½-hour takeover of the piazza's famed bell tower by secessionists in 1997. TV footage showed the so-called tank was a tractor with firearms that had yet to be mounted.
Italian media reported the secessionists intended to deploy the vehicle on the eve of European Parliamentary elections in May, which will be a measure of growing anti-Europe sentiment arising from harsh austerity measures to fight the economic crisis.
The crackdown comes days after politicians in Veneto started formal proceedings toward independence, despite constitutional prohibitions.
Veneto's regional governor, Luca Zaia, promoted an online survey that purportedly showed overwhelming support for secession. But the Corriere del Veneto paper this week reported that most of its 2.6 million votes backing secession were generated by computers abroad.
One survey organizer, Gianluca Busato, called the crackdown a "ridiculous" overreaction by the state.
"We are peaceful democrats," Busato said on Sky TG24. "We have the people on our side."
The Veneto region, centered on Venice, helped transform Italy into an industrial power in the 1960s and 1970s. The small- and medium-sized, family-run businesses that were the source of the region's success have been hit particularly hard by the economic crisis. The secessionist sentiment is rooted in anger that the north's money is appropriated by Rome in taxes.
The arrested reportedly include two people involved in the 1997 St. Mark's takeover, the founder of the secession-minded Liga Veneta as well as organizers of the "Pitchfork Protests" that sprang up last December aimed at ousting Italy's entire political class.
Police said they also sequestered weapons in raids that extended into other regions with secessionist movements, including Lombardy and Piedmont in the north and the island of Sardinia.
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