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ROME – Security around the Vatican is on high alert after a renegade vehicle sped erratically towards St. Peter’s Square and broke through police barricades just before the pope’s noontime Angelus address on Sunday.
At around 10 a.m., just two hours before Pope Francis was scheduled to appear for the weekly Angelus, a gray BMW was seen swerving at high speed down the Via della Conciliazione, the main street leading up to St. Peter’s Square.
Police stationed near the square shouted and motioned to the car in an attempt to get it to stop. However, the car continued veering up the street and then turned and drove along the lefthand colonnade, eventually turning into the Piazza Sant’Uffizio, where tourists were lined up doing security checks and stopping at cafés prior to the papal address.
The car apparently drove straight toward a police blockade, prompting one of the officers to shoot at the vehicle’s tires as it came at him and a group of tourists standing nearby.
Swiss Guards standing at the front of the Holy Office, the building where the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is housed, closed the doors as the car raced by.
Despite having its two front tires shot out, the vehicle did not stop, but slammed into a police car and turned onto the Via Porta Cavalliggeri and sped up Via Gregorio VII, the large street running alongside the Vatican walls.
A special anti-terrorism unit deployed on scene was finally able to cut the vehicle off, forcing it to a stop.
According to video footage, officers then jumped out of their cars and surrounded the vehicle, which reportedly started back up as if it was going to attempt an escape, prompting an office to open fire on the tires again.
Police then stormed the car, broke its windows, and used a taser on the driver to immobilize him.
The driver was identified as 39-year-old Albanian Erjol Nako, who apparently has several prior offenses related to drug trafficking and abuse against his ex-wife.
After being neutralized by police, Nako was first taken to a police station, and later a hospital, where bloodwork confirmed that he was both intoxicated and high on drugs while driving the vehicle.
While the incident was initially believed to be a terrorist attack ahead of the pope’s Angelus address, police found no weapons or other “offensive objects” in Nako’s vehicle, and so far, no ties have been established to extremist groups.
Nako, who after being treated at Rome’s Santo Spirito hospital, was arrested for resisting a public official. He is apparently a devout Catholic, as his social media accounts are filled with prayers, references to sacred music, and information about Rome. His profile picture on Facebook is an image of St. Michael the Archangel, who, ironically, was proclaimed the patron saint of police by Pope Pius XII in 1949.
Before making his way to the Vatican, Nako apparently barged through a police checkpoint near the Pantheon and then went through a second on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of the main streets running through the city center, before making his way to the Vatican area.
Nako at one point threw his mobile phone and wallet containing all of his documents out of the window of his car in a futile attempt not to be identified.
Two officers were apparently injured in one of Nako’s attempts to ram their vehicle, but they have been discharged after receiving treatment for minor scrapes and bruises.
According to Italian newspaper La Reppublica, there were hundreds of people in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, and shop owners and waiters at a nearby café hustled tourists into their businesses and shut the door, while police attempted to slow the car down.
Nako’s motive for his rampage is still unclear, but it is believed to be the result of narcotics and a possible psychiatric episode rather than terrorism.
However, the incident has still set city police on high alert, as the car driving wildly down a popular tourist area is reminiscent of past terrorist attacks involving cars driving into large crowds at tourist venues across Europe.
In 2015, the Via della Conciliazione was closed to traffic, in part due to the increased threat of radical Islamic terrorism in Europe, and also for the safety of pilgrims lined up to enter the basilica during the 2015-2016 Jubilee of Mercy.
At the same time, the metal containers were taken off of public trash cans, leaving just a clear plastic bag hanging from the rim, so its contents were visible, and any potential explosives could be identified.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen