Italian police have seized an air-to-air missile and a huge arsenal in raids on far-right parties as part of a probe into links between extremists and Russian forces in Ukraine.
Officers in the north of the country detained three men, including one linked to neo-fascist Italian political party Forza Nuova, after uncovering material featuring Nazi symbols and a stash including automatic weapons.
Among the weapons seized, during raids in several cities against Italians suspected of aiding pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, was an air-to-air missile used by the Qatari army.
‘During the operation, an air-to-air missile in perfect working order and used by the Qatari army was seized,’ police said in a statement.
This morning’s raids followed separate reports last week that claimed an aide of Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini plotted to funnel Russian oil money to the far-right minister’s party in Italy – allegations he has strongly denied.
Italian policemen carry an air-to-air missile which was found along with a big cache of guns and ammunition that was seized by Digos, a Turin special police force, that led the operations
As well as the Matra missile, the raid this morning uncovered a stash of sophisticated weapons, including ‘latest generation’ automatic assault rifles and rocket launchers.
It remains unclear how, or where, the men planned to use the weapon.
‘We have some idea about what the seized equipment could be used for, but will not speculate,’ Turin police commissioner Giuseppe De Matteis told reporters.
‘For now, there is nothing to lead us to suspect an active plot to use the weapons,’ said counter-terrorism official Eugenio Spina.
Police don’t believe there is an active plot underway but won’t reveal more details around the potential motive behind why the men had the air-to-air missile
Turin Police said the raids stemmed from a previous investigation into Italians linked to the Russian-backed insurgency in Donbass, where an armed conflict has been underway since 2014.
More than 10,000 people have died in fighting since the insurgency began.
Skirmishes with Ukrainian government troops continue, but the front-line has remained generally static for more than a year.
According to police, one of the men arrested in this morning’s raids had, in 2001, run unsuccessfully as a senate candidate for the neo-fascist Forza Nuova party.
He’s been named in the Italian press as Fabio Del Bergiolo, 60, a former customs inspector specialising in anti-fraud.
At his home in Gallarate, police found nine assault weapons, nearly 30 hunting rifles, pistols and bayonets as well as ammunition and antique Nazi plaques featuring swastikas.
The party he was linked to, Forza Nuova, was founded by Roberto Fiore and Massimo Morsello, it has frequently been criticised for its radical positions and accused of committing acts of militant violence.
Founded in 1997, by 2013, it had grown to become the largest far-right party in Italy and has longstanding ties to other far-right groups in Europe.
Fiore was once a close ally of the Ukranian far-right party, but has since the armed conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine shifted his allegiance, and that of his party’s towards the pro-Russia camp.
This photo released by police shows a big cache of guns and ammunition that was seized in this morning’s raids
This photo released by police shows a range of knives alongside material displaying Nazi symbols – all of which were uncovered in a series of raids in Italian cities this morning
Political Capital Institute, a Hungarian think tank has labelled Forza Nuova as one of a number of Russian-backed radical-right political parties in Europe.
But in a statement, regional coordinator of Forza Nuova Lombardia, Salvatore Ferrara, distanced the party from the alleged actions and the arrest of its former candidate.
‘We affirm that on the contrary none of the people involved has been a militant of Forza Nuova for years, which therefore has absolutely nothing to do with this morning’s searches’.
Two other men were detained near Forli airport, in this morning’s raids, after Italian police found the French-made missile, that the men were apparently seeking to sell, at an airport hangar.
They were named in Italian press as Alessandro Monti, 42, Swiss, the owner of the company that owns the hangar near Voghera where the missile was found and Fabio Bernardi, 51.
Italian media have reported that the men were trying to sell the French-made air-to-air war missile for about £423,000
Alongside the stash of weapons police also found a range of material with Nazi symbols
The Forza Nuova party has distanced itself from its former candidate who was arrested after a stash of weapons and Nazi-labelled materials were seized in raids across Italy
According to Italian media outlet La Republica Bergiolo was suspected after calls were intercepted that indicated he was attempting to sell the French-made air-to-air war missile for about £423,000.
It was also reported that among the potential buyers was a public official of a foreign country who had shown an interest but demanded documentation on the purchase of the bomb.
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.
Last week’s allegations against Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister first surfaced after Buzzfeed published recordings of a meeting of three Russians at Moscow’s Metropol hotel last October.
The reports alleged there were plans for a Russian oil firm to sell its fuel to an Italian counterpart in order to generate $65million (£52million) in funds which could be funneled to the League party.
Gianluca Savoini, who claimed he was at the hotel to meet local entrepreneurs said the alleged meeting had not taken place and the League had not taken any money from Russia.
Salvini has also strongly denied his League party received any money from Russian investors via a secret oil deal.