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Debate on pope's security reignited

Man tries to jump onto pontiff's jeep

A television frame showed a 27-year-old German man leaping over a barricade during Pope Benedict XVI's weekly audience in Vatican City yesterday. The man, who the Vatican said showed signs of "mental imbalance," was taken to a hospital. (VATICAN TV VIA REUTERS)

VATICAN CITY -- A German man jumped a security barrier and grabbed the back of Pope Benedict XVI's open popemobile before being swarmed by security guards yesterday -- reviving a debate over whether the pontiff needs stronger protection during his public audiences.

Benedict was not harmed and appeared not to even notice, never looking back as he waved to the crowd in St. Peter's Square. But security analysts said he exposes himself to undue risk by appearing at the same place and time each week in an open jeep.

"If he cannot change the route or the hour, he must use at least a protected car," said Claude Moniquet, head of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, a Brussels-based think tank on security issues.

The man vaulted onto a wooden barrier and then over in an apparent attempt to get into the white popemobile. One guard grabbed him as he leaped, but the man managed to grab hold of the vehicle before security men trailing the car pinned him to the ground.

Benedict didn't flinch. The 80-year-old, German-born pope continued waving and blessing the cheering crowd of some 35,000 people as his jeep kept moving slowly forward and the audience proceeded as if nothing had happened.

The Vatican spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, said the man was a 27-year-old German who showed signs of "mental imbalance." He declined to identify him.

"His aim was not an attempt on the pope's life but to attract attention to himself," Lombardi told reporters.

The man was interrogated by Vatican police and then taken to a hospital for psychiatric treatment, he said.

Moniquet, a security specialist who has written about protecting heads of state, said leaders such as the pope have to balance the need to be accessible to the public with their need for security in today's violent world.

But unlike other leaders who make occasional forays into the public domain, the pope has a regular appointment with the faithful each Wednesday morning -- precisely the type of routine that security guards try to avoid.

"The fact is you cannot ensure 100 percent protection," Moniquet said. "It's around the Vatican. It's a ritual."

Nevertheless, Vatican officials said there were no plans to change the use of open vehicles for the weekly audience at the Vatican.