Battisti capture revives memories of Italy's 'Years of Lead'

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Battisti capture revives memories of Italy's 'Years of Lead'
Propaganda leaflets written by the violent far-left Red Brigades in the 1970s. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

The jailing this week of former communist radical Cesare Battisti, a key figure in the violent turmoil in Italy of the 1970s, has brought back memories of a time when leftist killings raged across Europe and beyond.


Battisti, 64, finally returned to Italy on Monday after nearly four decades on the run following his escape from prison in 1981.

Ultra-leftist groups like his own sowed chaos during the period in Italy known as the 'Years of Lead' -- named after the number of bullets fired -- from the late 1960s to mid-1980s.

Across Europe, it was a time when radical youths sought to smash the capitalist system with a wave of bombings, assassinations, hostage-takings and plane hijackings.

Judge Mario Sossi, kidnapped by the Red Brigades in April 1974. Photo: AFP

West Germany's Red Army Faction, whose most extreme members were known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, carried out a string of attacks on "capitalist" targets such as police and US troops. France's Action Directe group also waged attacks in the name of the proletariat, while in junta-ruled Greece militants targeted the CIA, banks and industrialists among others.

In Lebanon, radicals in the diaspora set up the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) to fight Turkish interests, mostly in Europe. And the Japanese Red Army, which waged terror at home and around the world, sought the overthrow of the country's monarchy along with a global revolution.

Against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, the US-backed 1973 coup in Chile, student demos and trade union battles, a tide of anti-imperialist sentiment helped spur the radicals into violent action.

The presumed leaders of the Red Brigades in May 1974: from left, Piero Morlacchi, Mario Moretti, Renato Curcio and Alfredo Bonavita.

"At the end of the 1960s, young rebels were turning to armed action with the idea of fighting the last fascists," said Mosco Levi-Boucault, a French film director who produced a series about Italy's notorious Red Brigades.

Just 15 years or so after the end of World War II, ex-fascists were prime targets for leftist revolutionaries.

"At the time, Italian factories still employed former fascists as foremen," Levi-Boucault said. "One of them was found with his head shaved, tied to the gates of the Fiat factory in Turin."

The man survived, but he was one of the lucky ones.

READ ALSO: Italy remembers Aldo Moro, the former prime minister killed by terrorists

The scene of Aldo Moro's kidnapping in March 1978. His body was later dumped in the boot of a car. Photo: AFP

In the most infamous of their attacks, the Red Brigades kidnapped and murdered Italy's former conservative prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978.

Historian Marc Lazar, an expert on the period from the Institute of Political Science in Paris, said the fact that democracy was still relatively new in some countries made the resort to violence seem more acceptable.

In Italy, he added, leftwing militants were also out to fight the far-right which was itself waging attacks -- such as the 1969 Milan bombing that left 16 dead -- in a bid to justify a return to an authoritarian regime.

The particular violence in Italy, which Lazar estimates left more than 400 people dead, came from "one-upmanship in the escalation of violence between far-right and far-left".

The devastation at the National Agricultural Bank in Milan after a rightwing group bombed it in December 1969. Photo: AFP

Battisti, who belonged to the Armed Proletarians for Communism group, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1971 for shooting dead two Italian policemen.

After his jailbreak he lived for years in Brazil under the protection of former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. But the country's new far-right President Jair Bolsonaro had vowed on the campaign trail to send Battisti back to Italy.

Battisti went on the run again -- but was tracked down in Bolivia last week and swiftly extradited after authorities there ignored his asylum request.

READ ALSO: The crimes that made Cesare Battisti one of Italy's most wanted

Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP


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