Terror plot disclosed ahead of Italian election as Berlusconi stokes bitter campaign

The Italian government announced Thursday that police had foiled a planned terrorist attack on a Bologna basilica and the Milan subway, making the disclosure just days before Italians vote in a bitterly contested national election.

While both government and opposition forces praised the police work that thwarted the alleged plot, some of Premier Silvio Berlusconi's center-left opponents sought to play down any political impact of the terrorism disclosure.

While there has been heightened security in Italy since after the Sept. 11 attacks, which came a few months into Berlusconi's government, the Turin Olympics in February and the campaign for the April 9-10 vote were deemed by authorities as sensitive times for anti-terrorism measures.

Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said the alleged terrorist plot involved seven people. Three of the suspects have been expelled from Italy, two were arrested, one is under surveillance and one was being sought, he told reporters on the sidelines of a political rally in Sardinia.

"There was a terrorist plot that was to be carried out in our country, and the monitoring and prevention action of our forces allowed us to thwart it," Pisanu said.

The minister did not say when the police operations occurred or when the thwarted attacks were supposed to occur.

Milan daily Corriere della Sera reported Thursday that the alleged plotters aimed to carry out the attacks before the elections.

A top left-wing leader, former premier Massimo D'Alema dismissed any notion that the terrorism development would somehow play a role in campaign politics. "It was an announcement that luckily tells us that terrorist acts have been thwarted," D'Alema was quoted as saying by the Italian news agency ANSA.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi said he was "outraged" by what he called a conspiracy by magistrates to oust him from office.

"It is absurd that ... there are some state officials ... paid by the taxpayers who plot, who plot, who plot against a premier who works for all Italians," he told a news conference, reports AP.

O.Ch.