Paper: Italian Church Attack Plotted

Suspected Islamic militants were plotting an attack on a northern Italian church that has been the subject of protests by Muslims in the past, a newspaper reported Sunday.

The Milan daily Corriere della Sera said the San Petronio basilica in Bologna was targeted apparently because it contains a 15th century fresco that depicts Islam's prophet Muhammad in Hell, being devoured by demons.

Last year, a group of Italian Muslims appealed unsuccessfully to the Vatican to have the fresco by Giovanni da Modena removed or parts of it covered, arguing that it offended Islam.

The group, the Union of Muslims in Italy, denied any link to the plot to attack the church on Sunday and questioned the report's veracity, president Adel Smith told The Associated Press.

``We send letters and stage protests,'' Smith said. ``It's obvious that we have nothing to do with this thing.''

Corriere said Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police learned of the plot by intercepting phone conversations as part of a larger investigation into Muslim militants operating in Italy.

That investigation led to the convictions earlier this year of seven Tunisians in Milan who were accused of giving logistical support to Al Qaeda recruits passing through Europe.

The Tunisians were also accused by prosecutors of links to the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, a dissident faction of the Armed Islamic Group, Algeria's most radical insurgency movement. The United States has branded the Salafist group a terrorist organization and ordered its assets frozen.

The wiretaps indicated that starting in February, members of the Milan cell began plotting an attack on the Bologna church on orders of Salafist leader Hassan Hattab, Corriere said. Specific details, however, were never discussed.

In calls placed to Carabinieri offices in Milan and Bologna Sunday, officials said no one was available to confirm the report.

Over the course of the investigation, authorities learned details of a Libyan in Italy, identified only as Amsa, who allegedly was sent by Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network to coordinate activities of the various cells operating in the country, Corriere said.

Based on information passed onto Britain from the CIA and Italian intelligence, Amsa was arrested three weeks ago in London on charges of having false documents, Corriere said. Scotland Yard said Sunday it had no information on the arrest.