by Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times
ROME, Feb. 26 American and Italian investigators demonstrated today that terrorists might have been able to make their way through more than a mile of tunnels to the American Embassy here and place a chemical bomb in the water pipes.
Starting from a manhole at the Piazza della Repubblica where a discarded ladder and pair of overalls recently aroused suspicions, the investigators made their way to a spot under the street in front of the diplomatic compound.
A city public works official said the investigators had no trouble reaching the place near the embassy where a suspicious hole, big enough for a person, was recently dug through a three-foot protective concrete cap on the utility tunnel outside the American Embassy.
That tunnel is filled with water pipes as well as phone and electrical lines into the embassy, the city technician said. It is not clear who dug into the utility tunnel or when.
The findings today add weight to a police theory that a group of Moroccan men arrested here recently might have been planning an underground attack on the embassy. The men were found with nine pounds of a potentially dangerous cyanide compound and a detailed map of the utility tunnels under the embassy.
The city official interviewed today said a chemical attack through either the water lines or the other pipes around the American Embassy compound would have been "difficult, but not impossible if you knew what you were doing."
The police had been wondering, given tight security around the embassy, how anyone could have gotten under the street to drill the hole into the embassy's utility tunnel.
"We knew you couldn't get in through a manhole on Via Veneto" in front of the embassy, the official said, "or you'd be surrounded by police in three seconds. But this morning, with the American experts, we did a test, starting one kilometer away, at the Piazza della Repubblica, and arrived at the embassy, right where the hole is."
The hole, which the official had inspected several times in recent days, could only have been dug by professionals, he said. It measured about two feet across and more than a foot high, and created an uninterrupted passageway around the embassy, he said. The last time he saw the concrete cap on the tunnel intact was on Jan. 26.
He also said that, contrary to recent statements by embassy officials who have played down the threat, a chemical bomb placed in the tunnel on the other side of the newly chiseled hole could have sent poison gas or water into the embassy.
Neither embassy officials nor the Italian police were available for comment tonight.
But earlier in the day, one Italian official close to the case also suggested that the threat to the embassy was far more serious than embassy officials and some other Italian investigators had indicated.
Adding to anxieties, a bomb exploded early this morning near the Italian Interior Ministry, destroying several cars and smashing some shop windows. The ministry in downtown Rome is the headquarters for Italy's national police and security services.
There were no injuries, and officials said they did not believe that the bomb, which exploded at 4 a.m. and was apparently attached to a motor scooter, was the work of Islamic or any other international terrorists. Similar incidents over last couple of years have been attributed to anarchists.
But in the context of recent events, this latest bombing was particularly unnerving.
Police have not spoken on the record about the embassy case, and were initially furious that news of it had gotten out, saying the investigation had been compromised by the leaks.
Embassy officials, meanwhile, have said they are taking the threat seriously but are not sure that any such plan could have been carried out.
The Italian official who spoke today said that the suspects had not been linked to Osama bin Laden's terror network or any other terrorist group. But he said the investigation, which he expected to go on for some time, was only beginning.
All nine men, who have denied knowledge of any plot, remain in custody.
They were arrested here over the last two weeks. Four were found with the cyanide compound, the maps and about 10 pounds of firecrackers that could have been used to ignite the compound.
The substance, potassium ferrocyanide, is not in itself dangerous and is commonly used by gardeners. But scientists have said that if heated, it can emit hydrocyanic acid, which is highly toxic.
A judge has denied bail in the case, saying the men, who have been charged with subversive association, were working together "to form one single group, to whom the poisonous substance belonged."
After the arrests, the police checked the tunnels around the embassy and discovered the hole in the concrete leading to the tunnel. The concrete was poured as a security measure several years ago, specifically to block access to the pipes leading into the embassy, the city official said.
Embassy officials said on Monday that there were no water pipes in the tunnel, only electrical and phone wires. But the city official, who has worked in the tunnels for years, said the embassy officials were mistaken on that point.
Or, rather, they were technically correct in saying water lines in the tunnel do not go straight into the embassy, he said. "But they are the general water lines for the whole area, including the embassy."
He also said that because there is space around the protective wiring on the electrical and phone cables, fumes from a chemical bomb placed in the tunnel might theoretically have reached the embassy as well.
The city supervisor also disputed the suggestion by embassy officials that the hole might have been cut by workers for an innocuous purpose like passing tools back and forth.
"If you wanted to put a hole there, you would need to apply to us for a permit, and there was none," he said.