POSTED: 4:19 a.m. HST, Apr 2, 2014
MILAN >> Italian special operations units on Wednesday arrested 24 secessionists who were allegedly planning a violent campaign aimed at gaining independence for the wealthy northeastern Veneto region.
Police said in a statement that the group had built an armored vehicle that they intended to deploy in St. Mark's Square in Venice -- reminiscent of a 7 1/2-hour takeover of the piazza's famed bell tower by secessionists in 1997. TV footage showed the so-called tank was a tractor that had been armed in some fashion.
Italian media reported that 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. Prosecutors allege that the violent secessionists were seeking a two-pronged approach of violence alongside consensus-building.
Veneto's regional governor, Luca Zaia, promoted an online survey that purportedly showed overwhelming support for secession. Corriere del Veneto this week reported that most of the more than 2.6 million votes backing secession were generated by computers abroad.
One of the survey's organizers, Gianluca Busato, said the crackdown was 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, and the secessionist sentiment is rooted in anger that the north's money is appropriated by Rome in the form of taxes.
The arrested reportedly include two people who were involved in the 1997 St. Mark's takeover, the founder of the secession-minded Liga Veneta as well as organizers of the so-called ''Pitchfork Protests" that sprang up last December aimed at ousting the entire political class.
Police says they also sequestered numerous weapons in raids that extended into other regions with secessionist movements, Lombardy and Piedmont in the north and the island of Sardinia.