Italian minister Matteo Salvini has claimed that a group of neo-Nazi pro-Ukrainian fighters caught smuggling guns and a missile wanted to assassinate him.
Salvini, who leads the pro-Russian League party, said he alerted police to a Ukrainian group which was operating out of Turin after he received death threats from them.
When police raided the group they found a ‘combat ready’ 540lb Matra missile, ‘latest generation’ assault rifles, and neo-Nazi regalia in an ‘unprecedented’ cache.
Matteo Salvini, who leads the pro-Russia League party, claims that pro-Ukraine militants in Turin threatened to kill him before a police raid uncovered a huge arms cache
Among the ‘unprecedented’ haul of weapons was a 540lb air-to-air Matra missile, which experts said was in ‘combat ready’ condition
Speaking to Italian news agency ANSA on Tuesday, Salvini said: ‘It was one of the many death threats I get every day.
‘The secret services spoke of a Ukrainian group that was planning an attempt on my life. I’m happy it served to uncover the arsenal of some madmen.’
Salivini is known for taking strong pro-Moscow positions, has visited Russia a number of times in recent years and has met with Vladimir Putin.
He has been forced to deny that his party was being funded by Russia in recent days.
An investigation was launched after reports that close aide Gianluca Savoini met with Russian officials in Moscow to try and secure funding for the League Party.
Salvini distanced himself from Savoini, denied taking any money from Russia and brushed off demands to respond in Parliament, calling the whole case a ‘fantasy.’
But on Tuesday he caved to demands to appear before lawmakers after his government coalition partner – the 5 Star Movement – urged him to do so.
‘Certainly I’ll go to Parliament. It’s my job,’ he was quoted as saying during a visit to Genoa. He continues to deny any wrongdoing.
Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Moscow rebels in the country’s east since 2014, after leader Viktor Yanukovych – a close ally of Putin – was deposed.
Russia responded by annexing Crimea and calling for parts of the country’s east to be returned to Moscow’s control.
Officers also discovered a huge haul of ‘latest generation’ assault rifles an ammunition. Three men have been arrested
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
Putin has been accused of covertly moving Russian military units across the border in order to fight a proxy war.
There are an estimated 350,000 Ukrainians in Italy, according to census data, which makes them one of the country’s largest immigrant groups.
French news agency AFP initially reported the no-Nazi group were pro-Russian, but it has since emerged that they fought against Russian forces.
Police arrested three people in the raid on Monday, including Fabio Del Bergiolo, 50, a former candidate for the neo-fascist Forza Nuova party.
It was at his home where police found a huge stash of arms as well as neo-Nazi propaganda and Hitler memorabilia.
‘During the operation, an air-to-air missile in perfect working order and used by the Qatari army was seized,’ police said of the Matra missile.
They also found automatic assault rifles that they described as ‘latest generation’ among the cache.
‘This is a significant seizure, with few precedents in Italy,’ said Turin police commissioner Giuseppe De Matteis.
The missile, 3.54 metres (more than 11 feet) long was made in France and Del Bergiolo had been hoping to sell it for 470,000 euros ($529,000), according to Italian media reports.
The missile was ‘without explosive charge, but re-armable by people specialised in the field,’ police said.
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
‘For now, nothing leads us to suspect’ an active plot to use the weapons, said counter-terrorism official Eugenio Spina.
The other arrests were a Swiss national, 42, and an Italian, 51, accused of holding and marketing the missile, which was found by police at a warehouse near the small Rivanazzano Terme airport in the Pavia province.
– ‘Extremely dangerous’ –
The Mantra Super 530 F was a modernisation of the R530 missile that went into service in 1980, and has a range of 25 kilometres (15 miles), with an explosive charge of 30 kilos.
‘It is extremely dangerous and risky to turn it into a missile to fire from the ground, unless you have good engineers and equipment,’ a missile expert who asked not to be named told AFP.
Similarly, because of its age, it is ‘extremely unlikely that it can be used, but its use can be changed,’ he added.
The raids were the result of a police probe into Italian extremists known to have fought against pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.
Messages intercepted by the police led them to investigate Del Bergiolo, who had sent photographs of the missile for sale through the Whatsapp messaging service.
They put him under surveillance before raiding his home and finding a stash of weapons including a Scorpion machine gun, 306 firearm parts and 20 bayonets.
His collection included street signs from the Nazi era, including one reading ‘Adolf-Hitler Platz’.
Police in Pavia also found the cockpit of a military plane.
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
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.
‘We have some idea about what the seized equipment could be used for, but will not speculate,’ De Matteis told reporters.
The Forza Nuova party released a statement Monday distancing itself from Del Bergiolo.
Police have carried out several raids in recent weeks on far-right targets around Turin, with a man arrested earlier this month for advocating fascism and possessing illegal weapons.
While Italy’s far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini was uncharacteristically quiet following the raid, the opposition centre-left Democratic Party (PD) urged the country’s populist government to do more to tackle right-wing extremists.
‘The far right in this country trafficks weapons of war, and even missiles. It’s an incredible, very serious event,’ said Maurizio Martina, the PD’s former party head.