Two Italian policemen suspended after alleged sexual assaults of American students

Two Italian policemen who allegedly sexually assaulted two American students in Florence while on duty were suspended Saturday on a precautionary basis, authorities said.

The 21-year-old women told authorities that the police, in uniform, drove them home from a disco early Thursday morning because they couldn’t find a taxi, then sexually assaulted them inside their apartment building.

Italian media say three patrol cars went to a nightclub to investigate a fight. Two cars left after calm was restored, but the third remained. News reports described witnesses as confirming that they saw the women enter the patrol car.

Officials from Italy’s Carabinieri paramilitary police corps stressed the suspension reflects alleged conduct while on duty and is separate from Florence prosecutors’ criminal investigation of the alleged sexual assaults.

Besides the rape allegations, the policemen risk disciplinary charges for driving the women home without informing their superiors.

Authorities are awaiting DNA test results to see if they confirm the women’s account.

“Investigation is still underway, but there is some basis in respect to the allegations,” Minister Roberta Pinotti said Friday evening at a forum about women’s issues in Milan. “Rape is always something grave. But it’s of unprecedented gravity if it is committed by Carabinieri in uniform, because citizens turns to them and to their uniform to have assurances and security.”

Italy has two main police forces that patrol its streets — the paramilitary Carabinieri, which are under the defense ministry, and the state police, who report to the interior ministry.

A U.S. State Department official indicated the department was aware of the media reports that the two students were assaulted by police in Italy and that such allegations are taken seriously.

The U.S. Embassy in Rome, when asked about the investigation, sent an email saying: “Due to the sensitive nature of this case and to protect the privacy of those involved, we have no further comment.”

The U.S. consul general in Florence met for about an hour with Florence’s police chief Friday morning about the case, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

Florence, with its many museums and churches full with Renaissance masterpieces, is a popular destination for many Americans, especially university students.

The women reportedly arrived in Florence several months ago to study Italian at a language institute.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.