DUISBURG - Six Italian men were shot dead in the German city of Duisburg in an execution-style killing linked to a mafia feud.
Italian Interior Minister Giuliano Amato said in Rome the shootings appeared to be the latest chapter in a long-running dispute between two mafia clans in the southern region of Calabria, home to the 'Ndrangheta organised crime group.
All the victims were shot in the head. Five of them were aged between 16 and 25 and the other was 38-years-old.
The brazen attack in a foreign country is unprecedented, said Italian investigators, who fear a bloody riposte by victims' relatives in keeping with the tradition of vendetta.
"We are now trying to prevent a similar tragedy (in Calabria)," Amato told a news conference.
German police in the depressed northwestern city of Duisburg confirmed the victims came from the Calabria area and said they could not rule out the possibility of a mafia connection.
"We are exploring all possibilities, we are excluding nothing," Heinz Sprenger, head of the murder commission, told reporters. He said it would take a few days for the post-mortem results to come through.
They are looking for two male suspects spotted running near the scene around the time of the murders.
The shootings took place close to an Italian pizza restaurant called Da Bruno where a birthday celebration had taken place earlier. All the victims either worked at the restaurant or had some connection with it, said Sprenger.
The victims belonged to one of two rival clans based in the town of San Luca. A simmering feud, in which 15 people have been killed, began in 1991 and has escalated over the past eight months.
The 'Ndrangheta has outgrown its more famous Sicilian counterpart, the Cosa Nostra, thanks to clan loyalties ensured by blood relationships and arranged marriages, and is now Italy's leading organised criminal group for drug trafficking.
"This was an attack to assert power. It is not just the clan that comes out stronger, it is the 'Ndrangheta as a whole," said Alberto Cisterna, a top mafia national prosecutor.
Italian investigators said the 'Ndrangheta was well established in Germany but had traditionally kept a low profile.
Police found the six bodies in two vehicles near the city's train station after a passer-by heard shots at about 2:30 a.m. Five were already dead and the sixth died soon after.
"There were many shots and shot wounds," said Sprenger.
German television showed pictures of a distraught middle-aged woman arriving at the scene shouting "Sebastiano!"
Sprenger declined to say whether the police believed the pizza restaurant was involved in money laundering.
The cars, one a VW Golf and the other a small Opel delivery van, were registered in German towns.
Three of the men lived in Duisburg and one in a nearby town. The remaining two had recently come from Italy and had been staying with the others.
The shootings have stunned Germany, where gang crime on this scale is rare although in February, seven people were shot dead in an attack on a Chinese restaurant in northern Germany.
Italians are Germany's second biggest immigrant group after Turks. Many from the poor south came as "guest workers" after World War Two and helped fuel the country's economic boom.
About 540,000 Italians live here and are mostly well integrated.
At the end of 2006, about 3,500 Italians lived in Duisburg, a city in Germany's industrial heartland, the Ruhr, that has been hit by high levels of unemployment.