'Armed Maoists' and Ilk Spring Up Like Weeds

Northern Italy watches a slew of obscure underground movements arise with scary-sounding names

What's in a name? It's what many Italians wonder after the "Armed Maoist Bands of Padania" and the "Lombard Armed Front" announced their previously unsuspected existence last week.

Faced with the wholly unexpected proliferation of tiny separatist groups in the north, Italians are grappling with an added peculiarity: the sort of paramilitary jargon this peaceful country has long associated with the distant turbulence of Northern Ireland or the Middle East.

"It all started with the takeover of St. Mark's [Cathedral] bell tower in Venice," says Flavio Marcolin, a real estate broker in Rome who has been watching the news with a growing sense of incredulity. "Now there are dozens of these fairly harmless groups with absolutely terrifying names."

An armed group of eight men seeking independence for Venice and the surrounding Veneto region took over the bell tower May 10. Although they were expelled in a matter of minutes by police, their example was not lost on the more extreme northern nationalists, who call for the independence of affluent, industrialized north from the poorer, less-developed south.

The Armed Maoist Bands of Padania (Padania is an ill-defined territory north of the Po River) are a mystery to most people, including - some suspect - the Maoists themselves. "We think there's a couple of them," says one resident of Milan. "It's unclear at this stage what they're out to accomplish and how."

In their case, at least, the association with former Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong's campaign to "liberate" the Chinese people is clear. Many northerners see the Italian government, based in Rome, as favoring the south and repressively taxing the north.

But investigators are having a tougher time trying to decipher the political credo of the "Ernst Nikisch Group of Fire," which scrawled messages against "the corrupt servants of Rome" on the walls in Vicenza, one of Italy's richest cities.

"We don't know much about them," one investigator was quoted as saying in Turin's leading daily, La Stampa. "We think that it may have something to do with a philosopher in Germany's Weimar Republic [during the 1920s]."

Investigators say they are convinced that much of the writing on the wall has been done by solitary, disgruntled individuals going by names such as "St. Mark's Army" and the more predictable "Venetian Liberation Army," both in the Veneto region.

SOME of the names present glaring contradictions. "The Most Serene Group of Lombardy," which has been active in Milan, is one. The adjective "most serene" has been associated with the once-sovereign Republic of Venice, which at the peak of its power in the 14th century presented itself as The Most Serene Republic of Venice. As the investigator quoted by La Stampa put it: "They're essentially getting Venice and Milan mixed up."

Mixed historical references aside, the existence of such groups - and the recent shift from peaceful protests to potentially disruptive clandestine activity - has left many Italians wondering whether the government should have acted sooner.

"The failure to understand the subversive and radical nature of [leading northern separatist Umberto] Bossi's movement is typical of the superficiality of our politicians," wrote leading editorialist Ernesto Galli della Loggia in a front-page editorial in Italy's major daily Il Corriere della Sera.

Mr. Bossi's call for the independence of the Padania last September was largely interpreted as a colorful stunt by thousands of his followers in the Northern League. Yet when the secretary of the Partito Popolare Italiano, a centrist party, was badly beaten last week in the northern town of Varese by members of a separatist group, Liga Vares, not many people laughed.

Not even Bossi, who has come under growing criticism for having in effect legitimized extremist speech and attitudes.

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