BRINDISI (Reuters) - A bomb attack which killed a teenage girl and wounded 10 others in southern Italy was probably carried out by a lone individual, a senior official said on Sunday, playing down initial suspicions of mafia involvement.
Saturday’s attack on the Francesca Morvillo Falcone school, a vocational training institute named after the wife of a famed anti-mafia judge in the town of Brindisi, horrified Italy and sparked speculation it was the work of organized crime gangs.
However, the Brindisi chief prosecutor in charge of the investigation said it now appeared unlikely that either the Sicilian Mafia or the local version, known as the United Sacred Crown, were involved.
“The most probable hypothesis is that it was an isolated act,” Marco Dinapoli told reporters at a news conference held meters away from the site of the blast.
“It seems improbable, not entirely to be excluded, but improbable, that it is connected with mafia networks,” he said, adding that attacks on other schools appeared unlikely.
Dinapoli said police already had a facial composite picture of the suspect they believe was behind the attack which killed 16-year-old Melissa Bassi.
Media in Brindisi reported that two men, one a former soldier with knowledge of explosives, had been questioned by police and released. There was no confirmation from prosecutors.
Suspicions of mafia involvement were fed not only by the fact that the school was named after the wife of murdered anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, but also by the timing - the attack took place days before the 20th anniversary of the couple’s death in a bomb attack in Sicily.
Thousands took to the streets in demonstrations of sympathy and outrage at the mafia on Saturday but Dinapoli said it was still unclear what had prompted the attack and no claim of responsibility had been received.
He said investigators had acquired “significant” video evidence that suggested one man had set off the device which exploded as pupils were getting off a bus for the start of lessons on Saturday morning.
The footage showed a man of about 50-55 years of age activating a remote control to detonate a rudimentary bomb made of three gas canisters hidden in a container outside the school gates, he said.
“It could be a person who feels at war with the world. It could be someone who wants to create tension for some ideological reason,” Dinapoli said.
Prime Minister Mario Monti cut short a visit to the United States to return home to cope with the aftermath of both the attack and an earthquake in northern Italy in which at least six people died.
In Brindisi, a port town on Italy’s Adriatic coast where ferries leave for Greece, there was a palpable feeling of shock, with photographs of a smiling Melissa posted around the city and businesses carrying signs declaring they were in mourning.
People placed flowers at police barriers around the 1970s-era school in a nondescript part of town where pupils study fashion, tourism and social services.
Another girl, Veronica Capodieci, has been transferred to a hospital in the larger city of Lecce. She is still in serious condition, but the hospital reported on Sunday that she was stable and had regained consciousness.
The deadly attack on a group of young students was a potent shock for a country already grappling with economic decline and repeated political scandals.
“The school is a symbol of innocence and hope. The moment a school is attacked you have to ask yourself where things are heading,” said Franco Scoditti, the mayor of Melissa’s home town of Mesagne, near Brindisi.
Italy, which has a history of political and mafia violence, has seen a series of recent attacks on the main tax agency, apparently driven by anger over the economic crisis.
The shooting of the head of nuclear engineering group Ansaldo Nucleare earlier this month added to the tense climate which prompted Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri to step up security at high-risk sites.
With several suicides by struggling small businessmen illustrating the growing impact of Italy’s economic crisis, there have been fears of a return to the kind of political violence of the 1970s “Years of Lead” when extreme right and left-wing groups carried out bombings and assassinations.
On Sunday, Pope Benedict added his commiserations to messages of sympathy from leaders including French President Francois Hollande, saying he was praying for “Melissa, the innocent victim of brutal violence and her family”.
Additional reporting by Emilio Parodi; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Andrew Heavens