ROME – Italy mourned six soldiers killed in Afghanistan as teary-eyed relatives, officials and thousands of citizens saluted their flag-draped coffins at a state funeral Monday.
The government called a national day of mourning, with flags at half staff and a minute of silence at public offices.
The attack Thursday in Kabul marked Italy’s deadliest day yet in the Afghan conflict. At home, it rekindled a debate over Italian participation in the mission and the prospects for an end to the eight-year war.
In a traditional sign of respect, the crowd applauded as the six coffins were carried inside the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls by fellow soldiers. An honour guard saluted the coffins and many standing in the rain outside the basilica waved the red-white-and-green Italian flag.
In one of the most poignant moments of the ceremony, the 7-year-old son of one of the victims approached his father’s coffin and gently touched it. A photo portrait of each man, along with his beret, was placed on each coffin.
Pope Benedict XVI sent a telegram of condolences that was read during the ceremony, saying he was praying that God would “support those who are engaged daily in building solidarity, reconciliation and peace in the world.”
Premier Silvio Berlusconi shook hands with relatives of the dead as he sought to comfort them, and President Giorgio Napolitano bowed his head before the coffins.
Some private businesses shut down their doors for a few minutes during the ceremony, reports said. The funeral was broadcast live on state-run TV and other national broadcasters.
The roadside bombing in the Afghan capital also killed 10 Afghans and wounded four other Italian soldiers, who attended the funeral. Italy sent some 2,800 troops to Afghanistan, and added an extra 500 for the recent Afghan elections. The additional troops are expected to come back over the next few weeks, as had been planned, but Berlusconi said after the attack there would be no unilateral pullout of the contingent.
However, he called on international allies to adopt a “transition strategy” to allow Afghan forces take over their own security.
“We sent them over there, and they came back dead,” said Umberto Bossi, a Cabinet minister and close Berlusconi ally who was at the funeral. Bossi was among those pressing the government for a pullout in the aftermath of the attack.
The bodies of the Italians were returned home Sunday. Thousands of people went to pay their respects as the bodies lay in state in the chapel of a military hospital in Rome.