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.
Sky TG24 TV and RAI state TV each showed a split screen, on one side, the chaos of panicked people fleeing the square; on the other side, smiling ministers taking the oath of office to work for the good of the nation.
“When I heard the first shot, I turned around and saw a man standing there, some 15 meters (50 feet) away from me. He held his arm out and I saw him fire another five, six shots,” AP Television cameraman Fanuel Morelli, who was amazed at what appeared to be the man’s deliberate calm, said. “He was firing at the second Carabiniere, who was about 4 meters (13 feet) in front of him.”
The gunman was immediately wrestled to the ground by police outside Chigi Palace, which houses the premier’s office. The new ministers arrived at the premier’s office about 90 minutes later, for their first Cabinet meeting, some of them coming by foot as a way to reassure the public the area was safe.
The shooting panicked tourists and locals in the square on a rare sunny day at the end of a four-day holiday weekend.
A video surveillance camera on the Parliament building caught the attacker on film just before and during the shooting, Italian news reports said. In the film, the shooter is seen walking at a steady pace along a narrow street that leads from near Parliament’s lower house to the edge of Colonna Square, where police officers appear to have stopped him to ask where he was going. Shortly after that, the man begins firing, the surveillance camera showed, according to the reports.
Alfano said Preiti wanted to kill himself after the shooting, but ran out of bullets. He said six shots were fired in all. Laviani said the assailant had obtained his weapons on the black market. Sky reported that Preiti had taken a train to Rome from Calabria on Saturday, and that police found his car parked at a southern train station.
The interior minister said security was immediately stepped up near key venues in the Italian capital, but added authorities were not worried about possible related attacks.
“Our initial investigation indicates the incident is due to an isolated gesture, although further investigations are being carried out,” he said.
The ministers were kept briefly inside for security reasons until it was clear there was no immediate danger.
Preiti’s uncle, interviewed by Sky, said the alleged gunman had moved back to his parents’ home in Calabria because he could no longer find work as a bricklayer. “He was a great worker. He could build a house from top to bottom,” the uncle, Domenco Preiti, said.
The shooting revived ugly memories of the 1970s and 1980s in Italy, when domestic terrorism plagued the country during a time of high political tension between right-wing and left-wing blocs.
President Barack Obama wished the new Italian government well. The White House press office said Obama was looking forward to working closely with Letta’s government “to promote trade, jobs, and growth on both sides of the Atlantic and tackle today’s complex security challenges.”
There was no direct reference to the shooting in the White House statement.
Trying to renew Italy’s largely discredited political class, Letta brought many political newcomers into his Cabinet, including an eye surgeon who is a Congo native, and now is Italy’s first black minister, in charge of integration issues involving the growing immigrant population.
But the new premier also sought to reassure European central bankers and EU officials anxious that his government will stay the austerity course set by Mario Monti, who replaced Berlusconi in 2011 to save Italy from sliding deeper into the sovereign debt crisis. Letta picked the Italian central bank’s director general, who formerly worked at the International Monetary Fund, to hold the crucial economy ministry.
While the coalition’s bitter rival blocs might be enjoying a truce, relations could deteriorate. Berlusconi has insisted that the government’s first act should be undoing a highly unpopular property tax Monti established to help the state’s coffers.