Italian police arrested nine suspected terrorists and were hunting for nine others Friday in a crackdown on a group believed to be linked to deadly attacks in Pakistan and possibly a plot to attack the Vatican.
Police said the subjects of their nationwide operation were all Pakistanis or Afghans, either directly linked to or inspired by the al-Qaida terror network, and that one of their reputed goals was to trigger an uprising against the Pakistani government.
Prosecutor Mauro Mura told reporters in Sardinia Friday that years of investigation and monitored telephone calls suggested the Vatican, or even Pope Francis, was a potential target. The Pakistani and Afghan plotters at one time included two would-be suicide bombers, but they eventually left Italy - possibly after learning that their network was being watched by police.
Authorities did not find specific proof of plans to attack the pope, said Mario Carta, head of the police investigative team, but they had "strong" suspicions there was a plot targeting the leader of the world's more than one billion Catholics.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the threat was hypothetical and not the first of its kind, and that there is no reason for concern.
Pakistan's ambassador to Italy, Tehmina Janjua, told VOA's Deewa Service that her embassy was in touch with Italy's Interior Ministry to confirm the arrests and identities of the suspects.
Police wiretaps indicate two members of the group may have been bodyguards for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden before he was killed by U.S. special forces in Pakistan in 2011.
Authorities say some of the men being sought are suspected of involvement in a 2009 marketplace bombing that killed more than 100 people in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.
The group also smuggled Pakistani and Afghan nationals into Italy with fraudulent work contracts or requests for asylum, according to police.
Most of the nine suspects not yet arrested are believed to have left the country.