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Italian policemen shot near new gov't swearing-in

Monday - 4/29/2013, 4:02am  ET

Forensic police collect evidence in Piazza Colonna Square where a shooting took place outside Chigi Palace, premier's office, building at left, in Rome, Sunday, April 28, 2013. Two Italian paramilitary policemen were shot and wounded Sunday in a crowded square outside the premier's office in Rome as Italy's new leader Enrico Letta was being sworn in at the Quirinal presidential office, about a kilometer (half-mile) away. It was not immediately clear if there was any connection between the shooting and the swearing-in. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

FRANCES D'EMILIO
Associated Press

ROME (AP) -- In the very moments Italy's new coalition government was being sworn in, ending months of political paralysis in a country hoping to revive a bleak economy, a middle-aged unemployed bricklayer opened fire Sunday in the square outside the premier's office, seriously wounding two policemen, authorities said.

The alleged gunman from Calabria, a southern region plagued by joblessness and organized crime, told investigators he wanted to shoot politicians. But finding none in the square, he instead shot at Carabinieri paramilitary police.

A bullet pierced one of the policemen in the neck, passing through his spinal column, doctors said, adding it wasn't yet known if the 50-year-old officer would have any paralysis. The other one was shot in the leg and suffered a fracture.

The newly sworn in interior minister, Angelino Alfano, said a preliminary investigation indicated the shooting, which also slightly injured a pregnant bystander, amounted to a "tragic criminal gesture of a 49-year-old unemployed" man.

But the shooting was also a violent expression of social tensions in Italy, where unemployment is soaring, an increasing number of businesses are shutting their doors permanently and new political corruption scandals make headlines nearly every day.

Politicians described the attack as a disturbing call to fix Italy's economy.

"From what we understand, it's mainly personal problems, work, personal debts" that fueled the gunman's attack, said Guglielmo Epifani, a top official in Premier Enrico Letta's center-left Democratic Party.

Epifani said in a state TV interview that while the financial crisis has caused some to commit suicide, "this is the first time someone shoots to kill" someone else "in a place filled with innocent people."

"The symbolism is there," he said. The political world "must highlight its responsibility during the crisis before the country," he said.

In brief comments to reporters after paying a hospital visit to the more seriously wounded policeman, Letta said, "it is a moment in which each must do one's own duty."

The 46-year-old Letta will speak to Parliament on Monday, laying out his strategy to reduce joblessness while still sticking to the austerity measures needed to keep the eurozone's No. 3 economy from descending into a sovereign debt crisis. He will then face confidence votes needed to confirm his government.

Prosecutors identified the gunman as Luigi Preiti. Jobless, with a broken marriage and reportedly burdened by gambling debts he couldn't pay, Preiti had recently returned from Italy's affluent north, where he could no longer find work. He moved into his parents' home in Rosarno, a bleak Calabrian farm town where unemployment was already endemic before the last years of stagnation and recession sent youth unemployment soaring to nearly 40 percent nationwide.

His intended target was politicians, but with none in the square, he shot at the Carabinieri paramilitary police, Rome Prosecutor Pierfilippo Laviani told reporters, citing what he said Preiti told him when he questioned him.

Preiti, who was taken to the hospital for bruises, confessed to the shooting and didn't appear mentally unbalanced, Laviani said.

"He is a man full of problems, who lost his job, who lost everything," the prosecutor said. "He was desperate."

Mired in recession and suffering from soaring unemployment, Italy had been in political deadlock since an inconclusive February election. Social and political tensions have been running high among voters divided among a center-left bloc, conservative parties and an anti-establishment protest movement, which capitalized on public disgust with politicians to become Parliament's No. 3 force in its first national election bid.

The leader of the protest 5 Star Movement, comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, has been criticized for inflammatory statements in the past, including saying during a campaign rally that the Parliament building could be a bombing target. He incessantly derides mainstream politicians as the root of Italy's ills.

"Words thrown like stones can become bullets," Rome's right-wing mayor, Gianni Alemanno, said after the shooting.

Grillo swiftly moved to distance what he describes as a grass-roots political movement from any calls to violence.

"The movement isn't at all violent," Grillo said.

Sunday was supposed to be a hopeful day with a new government, which, only a day earlier, was forged out of two bitter political enemies. Letta's forces, with strong roots in a former Communist party as well as centrist Christian Democrats, and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi's center-right bloc had agreed after days of negotiations to a kind of truce coalition intent on economic, political and electoral reform.

Then the sound of shots pierced the happy chatter in Piazza Colonna, near a busy shopping street shortly just as Letta and his new ministers were taking their oaths at the sumptuous hall of the Quirinal presidential palace, about a kilometer (half mile) away.

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