By Barry Moody
ROME (Reuters) - The acquittal of four people for a bombing 38 years ago has left yet another atrocity from Italy's "Years of Lead" unsolved and underlined the failures of a chaotic justice system.
An appeal court in the northern city of Brescia at the weekend confirmed the acquittal of two neo-fascists, an informer for the secret services and a former police general for a bombing that killed eight people and wounded 103 at an anti-fascist demonstration in the centre of the city in 1974.
Although there have been no fewer than 10 trials and appeals since the bombing, nobody has been convicted of an act central to what is called a "strategy of tension" by right-wing extremists aimed at preventing Italy's then-powerful communist party coming to power at the height of the Cold War.
The PCI was the biggest communist party in the West until it collapsed after the end of the Soviet Union.
The verdict was received with bitterness in Brescia.
A handwritten sign was put up near where the bomb exploded reading "Fascist massacre of Piazza Loggia. Injustice is done!"
Brescia mayor Adriano Paroli told reporters: "The city and the whole country have been waiting for so many years for an answer - an answer that must consist of truth and justice, both of which are lacking today."
"How long will reasons of state or politics overcome the search for the truth?" asked Manlio Milani, who lost his wife in the bombing and leads an association of its victims.
A leading judge and a 1980 parliamentary commission have alleged that American CIA agents and Italian secret service officers were involved in a conspiracy to organize a string of bombings, including Brescia, and to then implicate left-wingers in order to block the rise of the communists and push voters towards the Christian Democrats.
Right-wing sympathizers in the secret services and other parts of the establishment are widely believed to have sabotaged investigations into the bombings, which coincided with the urban guerrilla warfare of the leftist Red Brigades.
EVIDENCE WASHED AWAY
Two hours after the explosion in Brescia, fire hoses were used to clean the piazza where it occurred, washing away potential evidence. Waste bins were hastily emptied.
According to some estimates, up to 2,000 people died in attacks during the Years of Lead, between the late 1960s and early 1980s, which shook the foundations of the Italian republic. The crimes included the Red Brigades' murder of former Christian Democrat prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978.
"The fact that we have still not succeeded in identifying and convicting the guilty 38 years later arouses bitterness and concern," said former interior minister Nicola Mancino.
The list of unsolved crimes includes the first of the series, the bombing of Milan's Piazza Fontana in 1969, where three trials have produced no justice for the 16 people who were killed, and a train bombing in 1974 that killed 12.
A new film has just opened in Italy about the Piazza Fontana attack, originally blamed on anarchists and later on neo-fascists.
Other atrocities, including Italy's worst since World War Two, the bombing of Bologna railway station in 1980, have resulted in only a few convictions after years of trials.
Eighty-five people died in Bologna, then a stronghold of Italy's left, and the crater caused by the bomb is preserved in the waiting room of the station.
To the horror of relatives of the dead and 103 injured in the Brescia bombing, they were ordered to pay legal costs by an appeal court on Saturday.
That prompted Prime Minister Mario Monti to announce on Monday that the government would assume the legal costs for the families, according to a statement.
The Brescia bombing is already the longest running case dating from those years of political violence and could still go to Italy's supreme court.
Giancarlo Stiz, a leading magistrate who investigated Piazza Fontana and other bombings, told Corriere della Sera newspaper after the Brescia verdict: "You have to laugh so as not to cry."
(Editing by Kevin Liffey and Andrew Osborn)