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Rome braces for millions of mourners for pope's funeral

ROME—With 2 million pilgrims and 200 world leaders descending on the city in advance of Friday's papal funeral, Rome is grappling with a logistics and security challenge that officials here have rarely seen before.

The previous two papal funerals, both in 1978, attracted a mere 750,000 and 500,000 mourners, respectively, and just a few heads of state.

But Friday's farewell to John Paul II is expected to draw several times those numbers, including President Bush, who will be the first American president to attend a papal memorial service.

That has sent Italian officials into an around-the-clock scramble to plan for both mundane and special needs, from security to thwart any terrorist attack to providing food, shelter and medical care to a number of visitors that may almost equal the city's 2.5 million population.

"For us, it will be an extraordinary challenge," Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni said Sunday.

Rome has hosted major world events before. In 2000, the city hosted several million visitors for the celebration of Christianity's 2,000th anniversary. But city officials had years to plan for that.

That celebration also took place before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks heightened security concerns across the globe.

Michele Calderone, a spokesman for Italy's Interior Ministry, declined to discuss what security precautions would be taken to ensure the safety of the tens of thousands expected to jam into St. Peter's Square to be near the papal funeral service.

"There is a way of handling that, but we don't discuss those details," he said.

Metal detectors have been deployed in the past to screen all visitors who pass through the columns into St. Peter's Square, but they haven't been used in recent days. The crowds on the streets leading into the square have been huge as well.

"I attended the mass yesterday, and there were no metal detectors and free access to the square," said Vittorfranco Pisano, a retired U.S. Army colonel who's consulted with the U.S. Senate's subcommittee on security and terrorism.

"Of course, there surely were plainclothesmen ... but anybody who had explosives strapped on his person could have carried out a terrorist attack. That has to be seen as a possibility," he said.

Authorities are believed to be planning to use explosive-sniffing dogs, extensive video surveillance and snipers posted on rooftops around the Vatican. Reports said more than 6,000 extra police already have been deployed.

Others discount that the pope's funeral is a likely target for a terrorist attack. London-based terrorism expert Loretta Napoleoni, a Rome native, said militants probably haven't had enough time to plan an attack on St. Peter's, given how quickly the pope's health declined. It took the organizers of the 2003 Madrid train bombings a year to gather the necessary explosives, she noted.

She added: "The security in Italy is phenomenal. It's the best anti-terror system in Europe. They have been dealing with terrorism, from the (political) left and the right, for decades."

More challenging may be the logistics of dealing with the deluge of people expected to arrive in Rome in the next few days.

To accommodate the pilgrims, a massive campsite is being set up on the outskirts of the city. Rome's Il Messaggero newspaper reported officials also are considering using sports venues, including the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium, to house visitors.

Via della Conciliazione, the large boulevard leading to St. Peter's, has been closed to private traffic. Police patrols have been stepped up, volunteers are directing traffic and ambulances have been waiting to help pilgrims and tourists.

Rome's transport authorities have increased the number of bus and subway runs, and there are plans to set up hundreds of portable toilets around the Vatican.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050404 Rome logistics

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