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Top guard at Vatican is killed in shooting

In the first killing inside the Vatican in living memory, the newly appointed commander of the papal Swiss Guards, his wife and another Swiss Guard were found shot to death in the commander's apartment Monday night.

A Vatican spokesman confirmed early today that Col. Alois Estermann, 44, who was appointed leader of the ancient unit hours earlier; his wife, Clarys Meza Romero; and Vice Cpl. Cedric Tornay, 23, were shot and killed.

Tornay apparently killed the two victims before shooting himself in what appeared to have been a "moment of madness," said a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini. He did not elaborate.

Chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters that "a service revolver was found under the body of the vice corporal."

The three bodies were found lying in the entrance hall of the apartment just inside the St. Anne gate, one of the Vatican's main public entrances, the ANSA news agency reported. The dwelling is a few hundred yards from the sprawling complex of papal apartments.

The killing was the first within the walls of Vatican City in 150 years. The most notable act of violence within the walls of the Holy See was the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981. At the time, Estermann, then in plain clothes, was a few feet from the pope when shots by gunman Mehmet Ali Agca rang out, and he cradled the pope in his arms, shielding him from further gunshots, until an ambulance was found.

Estermann had spent the last 18 years protecting the pope and defending the Vatican in what is known as the world's smallest army, and which dates to the 16th century. Though the 100 men of the Swiss Guards now play a mostly ceremonial role in their colorful plumed helmets and red, yellow and blue dress uniforms, the Swiss Guards were once mercenaries who defended Pope Clement VII during the sack of Rome in 1527. To this day, Swiss guards, in plainclothes, accompany the pope on all his travels. Estermann made more than 30 trips with John Paul II.

After the last commander, Roland Buchs, retired in early October, for what he described as family reasons, Estermann took over as acting commander. The Vatican's seven-month search for a new commander, who by tradition must be Swiss, Roman Catholic and of noble blood, became something of an internal controversy. Estermann, who was not an aristocrat, was a favorite of the troops and was finally appointed Monday _ only two days before the traditional May 6 swearing-in ceremony of the guards that is attended by the pope.

Swiss Guards, who are all Swiss citizens, live in their own barracks inside the Vatican, where they also train and take their meals, served by Swiss nuns. Theirs is an insular community even within the close-knit world of the Vatican. Young guards and even officers sometimes chafe at the rigid discipline and restrictions of both army and church. In uniform they carry seven-foot pikes and tear gas. They do not carry guns but are trained in shooting and there is a gun room in the barracks.

The Vatican is an independent city state with its own jurisdiction. It has its own penal code but it covers only crimes of the spirit. It has no jail, and only a few security rooms used by Vatican guards. It has own police force, however, and Gian Luigi Marrone, the judge of Vatican City, was immediately put in charge of the investigation.

Outwardly Monday, Estermann, who had been married for nearly 15 years to his wife, a Venezuelan doctor, and had no children, showed no signs of distress. "I spoke to him this afternoon and he was just delighted with his appointment," said Mario Biasetti, a writer who recently filmed a sympathetic documentary about the Swiss Guards and their traditions. "He seemed completely happy and normal."

Estermann, in an interview last month, said that he hoped to be appointed commander but that he was not certain he would be selected. But there was no question he viewed being commander as a dream job.

"I love being a soldier and I am a practicing Catholic," he said. "To serve as a soldier to the Holy Father is a beautiful combination for me."