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Top Italian government adviser killed, sparking fears of domestic terror in Italy

ROME (AP) _ Italy's interior minister on Wednesday linked the slaying of a government economic adviser to his work on labor reform and said the killers were trying to undermine democracy.

A state funeral was being planned for Marco Biagi, a 52-year-old university professor and labor consultant who was gunned down as he bicycled home from work Tuesday in the northern city of Bologna. Flowers and notes were left outside his home Wednesday, where investigators found several spent bullet cartridges. Witnesses said the assailants were two gunmen on a motorbike.

There have been no arrests and no claims of responsibility in the killing, which reminded many of the politically motivated violence of the 1970s and '80s, when the leftist Red Brigades carried out attacks that killed hundreds.

Pope John Paul II condemned the attack as ``barbaric'' and Italy's main labor unions called a series of strikes in protest.

Interior Minister Claudio Scajola told parliament Wednesday that the killing showed the ``persistence of terrorism.''

``This cowardly and bestial killing of a man who nurtured his ideas with nobility and courage has hit the whole country,'' Scajola said. The killers, he said, were ``trying to undermine democracy in Italy.''

Investigators found a five-pointed star _ the trademark of the Red Brigades _ scratched on a wall near Biagi's home. Police were trying to determine how long it had been there, news reports said. The group has been inactive for years, though it did claim responsibility for a political slaying in 1999.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi vowed his conservative government would continue its campaign for labor reforms and he invited unions to resume talks with the government ``in honor of Marco Biagi, a man of moderation and dialogue.''

The pope, speaking at his regular Wednesday general audience, condemned what he called ``senseless violence'' and urged unions, employers and the government to establish a ``climate of understanding.''

The labor reform measures that Biagi advocated are opposed by leftist lawmakers and labor unions because they would make it easier for employers to fire workers. Biagi had argued the reforms were necessary to help Italy catch up with stronger European economies.

The leaders of Italy's three main labor unions, who have denounced the killing, met Wednesday to discuss whether to go ahead with an anti-reform strike set for next month.

To protest the killing, workers planned to walk off the job two hours before quitting time in a nationwide strike Wednesday. The union leaders called it a ``a firm and prompt response against the return of terrorism.''

Demonstrations also were planned in several cities, including Bologna and Milan. In Rome, a candlelight march organized to protest violence in the Middle East would also protest domestic terrorism, unions said.

In the 1999 attack claimed by the Red Brigades, top Labor Ministry adviser Massimo D'Antona was killed outside his home. Like Biagi, he was also working on labor reform.

Prior to that, the group had not claimed responsibility for an assassination in 11 years. It may be best known for the 1978 killing of former Premier Aldo Moro.

Biagi taught at the University of Modena and was also a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University in Bologna. He was married and had two children.

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