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BRINDISI, Italy (Reuters) - A bomb exploded in front of a girls' school in southern Italy on Saturday, killing a 16-year-old girl and wounding seven others, suspicion quickly falling on the local Mafia.
The explosion, near the entrance of a school named after the wife of murdered anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, occurred as girls were arriving for the start of the school day, which in Italy includes Saturdays.
Authorities said at least two gas canisters appeared to have been placed in or near rubbish containers at the school, which local media said was located near the main court in Brindisi, a port city on the "heel" of the Italian peninsula.
The general director of the Perrino hospital in Brindisi, Paola Ciannamea, told local television that one girl was stable after surgery but in very serious condition, and at least six others were being treated for burns that were not life threatening.
"This is a tragedy," Mimmo Consales, the mayor of Brindisi, told SkyTG24 television.
There was no claim of responsibility and no indication of who had planted the bomb, but initial suspicions were directed at the local mafia, known as the United Sacred Crown.
Consales noted that the incident occurred just a few days before the 20th anniversary of the murder of Falcone and his wife, Francesca Morvillo, by a bomb in Sicily on May 23, 1992. An anti-Mafia march had been planned in Brindisi later in the day.
"You can understand the symbolism of this and what it all signifies," he said.
Twenty years ago the Sicilian Mafia bombed Milan, Florence and Rome, killing 10 people, in response to a crackdown on organised crime that had been spearheaded by Falcone and his fellow magistrate Paolo Borsellino, who was also assassinated in 1992.
Television shots of the scene in Brindisi showed a cement wall blackened by fire next to the school's entrance gate.
Shattered glass and other debris covering the pavement on a sunny spring day.
Schools in the region were immediately closed and a group of investigators, including Italy's top anti-mafia prosecutor, were summoned to meet later on Saturday.
Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri said organised crime's involvement could not be ruled out, pointing out that the link to Falcone's wife, but cautioned that there were no firm indications.
"I prefer to be prudent, but this is a striking fact," she told SkyTG24.
Cancellieri announced plans several days ago to step up security around sensitive targets including official buildings after a series of threats against tax officials.
Italy's main tax collection agency, Equitalia, has been attacked with a series of small bombs as public anger mounts over the high taxes imposed to shore up public finances and combat the economic crisis.
The head of Ansaldo Nucleare, a nuclear engineering company owned by the defence technology group Finmeccanica, was shot in the leg in an attack claimed by an anarchist group, adding to concerns that extremist groups may try to exploit the public anger.
Prime Minister Mario Monti, who is at Camp David attending a Group of Eight summit, said his government was determined to prevent a return to the political violence of the past.
Reporting by James Mackenzie in Rome, Emilio Parodi in Milan, and Daniel Flynn in Paris. Writing by Steve Scherer.; Editing by Tim Pearce/Maria Golovnina