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Raid on Venice Bell Tower Rings Across Divided Italy

After separatists take landmark on Saturday, Italians debate unity.

Hot-headed stunt or a premonitory sign?

That's what many Italians are asking after eight armed men took over the bell tower in Venice's St. Mark's Square for seven hours on Saturday.

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The men are part of a group demanding the independence of the famous Renaissance city of canals and the affluent Veneto region around it. Police ended the siege without a shot.

"Let's go ahead and laugh at them," advised a front-page editorial in Italy's leading daily, Il Corriere della Sera. "But let's keep in mind that the dissatisfaction of Veneto can express itself through extreme language."

Of all the regions in Italy's wealthy north, Veneto is among the richest and most dissatisfied with the southern half of Italy. It produces close to one-third of the country's wealth, and many residents complain that they are exploited by excessive taxation and a corrupt central government.

Veneto is also the birthplace of the Liga Veneta, a regional movement so extreme in its demands that even the Northern League, which recently proclaimed the independence of Padania - an ill-defined region north of the Po River - has found ways of disassociating itself from it.

The Liga Veneta came to life in the late 1970s, many years before the Northern League. Its battle cry from the beginning has been "Mi a son Veneto," or "I am a Veneto." Members of the Liga attribute to Veneto its own distinct cultural identity, which sets the political basis for separatism.

"Whatever one may think, the fact is that there a is multitude up there secretly rejoicing," says Carlo Pizzati, a journalist whose father was the first politician ever elected to office representing the Liga Veneta in 1979. "Aside from the symbolic significance, this act is going to get a lot of young, angry people thinking."

The midnight takeover of the majestic, ninth-century bell tower sets an arresting precedent. Armed with outdated machine guns, the separatists stormed the bell tower, which is located in Piazza San Marco, the symbolic heart of the once-sovereign Republic of Venice. The former republic was one of Europe's major economic powers for nearly 1,000 years.

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A lightning assault by a special police unit, however, brought the episode to an end in a mere six minutes.

Immediately after the men were arrested, all eyes turned to Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League and the first politician to call for secession of the north from the rest of Italy.

"It's insane. We have nothing to do with it," Mr. Bossi said immediately.

Further investigation by the police has revealed a significantly more organized separatist structure than originally expected. According to one of the detainees there are 20 of such "mobile units" allegedly capable of re-enacting the takeover of the bell tower "at a moment's notice."

Although the Northern League has distanced itself from the "commando," many believe the vocabulary used members of the Liga, and other separatists in the north, is vintage Bossi. "Bossi himself may not be aware of what he has done by creating a language of separatism," wrote political commentator Indro Montanelli in an editorial in Il Corriere della Sera. "The country is now injected with this kind of venom."

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