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Italy on alert for water poisoner

Poisoning cases have been reported in more than 20 Italian cities.
Poisoning cases have been reported in more than 20 Italian cities.

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ROME, Italy (Reuters) -- Italian supermarkets were on high alert on Tuesday in an attempt to thwart the "Aquabomber," a mystery assailant who has been injecting bleach and acetone into plastic bottles of water.

Nearly a dozen people, including two small children, have been taken to hospital with stomach pains after drinking contaminated bottled water over the past two weeks.

On Monday alone, Italians reported more than 20 cases of apparent tampering with bottles of different brands in different regions of the country.

"The phenomenon is spreading like wildfire," the chief investigator in Rome told Il Messaggero daily, sketching out the police strategy. "We're focusing our efforts on stopping it and discovering where it all started."

Police say the saboteur -- or copycat saboteurs -- use a syringe to inject small amounts of poisonous liquids like bleach, acetone or ammonia just below the cap.

In most cases, consumers have noticed a strange smell or the tell-tale pinpricks and handed the bottles to the police.

No one has claimed responsibility for the tampering, but police say a radical anti-capitalist activist, environmentalist or commercial sabotage could be behind the incidents.

Thousands of plastic bottles have been withdrawn from shelves and security guards are keeping a close eye on aisles where beverages are kept. Security cameras have also been trained on the shelves.

The first few cases were reported at the end of November in northern Italy, but incidents have now been reported in more than 20 cities, some as far south as Sicily. Tampering with cartons of milk and juice has also been reported.

Sales of water in plastic bottles are expected to plummet. Stores are already reporting a rise in the sale of glass bottles of water.

Police say there will likely be a lot of false alarms as well as copycats.

"Many are cases of emulation, dangerous emulation," the chief Rome investigator said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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