Italian police have seized a large arsenal of weapons, including an air-to-air missile and rocket launchers, in raids on neo-Nazi sympathisers in an arms haul that authorities said was almost without precedent.
Elite police forces searched properties across northern Italy following an investigation into Italians who had fought alongside Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, a police statement said on Monday.
Among other weapons uncovered were 26 guns, 20 bayonets, 306 gun parts, including silencers and rifle scopes, and more than 800 bullets of various calibres. The arms were primarily from Austria, Germany and the United States.
“This is a significant seizure, with few precedents in Italy,” said Turin police commissioner Giuseppe De Matteis.
This is a significant seizure, with few precedents in Italy
Turin police commissioner Giuseppe De Matteis
“During the operation, an air-to-air missile in perfect working order and used by the Qatari army was seized,” police said of the 245km Matra missile.
They also found automatic assault rifles that they described as “latest generation” among the cache.
At least three people, including Fabio Del Bergiolo – 50, a former candidate for the neo-fascist New Force, or Forza Nuova party (FN) – have been arrested.
The missile, 3.54 metres long was made in France and Del Bergiolo had been hoping to sell it for 470,000 euros ($529,000), according to Italian media reports.
The missile was “without explosive charge, but re-armable by people specialised in the field,” police said.
“For now, nothing leads us to suspect” an active plot to use the weapons, said Eugenio Spina, head of the counterterrorism unit.
The other arrests were a Swiss, 42, and an Italian, 51, accused of holding and marketing the missile, which was found by police at a warehouse near the small Rivanazzano Terme airport in the Pavia province.
The Mantra Super 530 F was a modernisation of the R530 missile that went into service in 1980, and has a range of 25km, with an explosive charge of 30 kilos.
“It is extremely dangerous and risky to turn it into a missile to fire from the ground, unless you have good engineers and equipment,” a missile expert who asked not to be named told the AFP.
Similarly, because of its age, it is “extremely unlikely that it can be used, but its use can be changed,” he added.
Messages intercepted by the police led them to investigate Del Bergiolo, who had sent photographs of the missile for sale through the Whatsapp messaging service.
Del Bergiolo’s home was found to contain a huge stash of arms as well as neo-Nazi propaganda and Hitler memorabilia.
They put him under surveillance before raiding his home and finding a stash of weapons including a Scorpion machine gun, 306 firearm parts and 20 bayonets.
His collection included street signs from the Nazi era, including one reading “Adolf-Hitler Platz”.
Police in Pavia also found the cockpit of a military plane.
The Digos law enforcement agency, which deals largely with terrorism and organised crime, led the operation from Turin with assistance from police in Forli, Milan, Novara and Varese.
“We have some idea about what the seized equipment could be used for, but will not speculate,” De Matteis told reporters.
The FN released a statement on Monday distancing itself from Del Bergiolo.
Police have carried out several raids in recent weeks on far-right targets around Turin, with a man arrested earlier this month for advocating fascism and possessing illegal weapons.
While Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, was uncharacteristically quiet following the raid, the opposition centre-left Democratic Party (PD) urged the country’s populist government to do more to tackle right-wing extremists.
“The far right in this country trafficks weapons of war, and even missiles. It’s an incredible, very serious event,” said Maurizio Martina, the PD’s former party head.