ROME (AP) — Three Gypsy sisters were burned alive Wednesday after their camper burst into flames as they slept, in what officials suggested was an arson attack involving the Roma community living on Rome's peripheries.
Italian politicians from the president on down demanded the stiffest of punishments for those responsible, while Pope Francis sent his chief alms-giver to visit the surviving members of the Halilovic family and bring them aid.
The three Halilovic sisters, aged 4, 8 and 20, were killed but their parents and eight other siblings who were piled in the camper managed to escape the blaze.
Italian news agency ANSA said prosecutors had opened an arson investigation after family members reported having received threats in recent days and another camper was torched last week nearby. Sky TG 24 said prosecutors believed the attack was likely a vendetta inside Rome's Gypsy community, rather than an anti-Roma act by local residents.
Rome police said only that they aren't excluding any lines of inquiry.
The Centocelle neighborhood is near Roma squatter camps, and the camper was parked in the otherwise empty parking lot of a shopping center. The vehicle was destroyed by the flames, with only the shell remaining.
Rome police Cmdr. Mario De Sclavis said the victims weren't well-known by area residents, who reported hearing a huge explosion followed by screams.
Mayor Virginia Raggi visited the site Wednesday and asked for a moment of silence.
By the end of the day, residents had left bouquets of flowers at the charred site and questioned how a family could have been living in such desperate circumstances.
"I thought it was an absurdity that we live in our houses nearby and still, there are situations of decay, in which we, in the majority of cases, are distrustful," said Luisa Ticca, a teacher.