MILAN (NYTIMES) - For an Italy worn out after a year that included deadly earthquakes, political turmoil and a slow-motion banking crisis, the news that two Italian police officers helped stop one of the world's most wanted terrorists came as a relief.
The officers - Cristian Movio, 36, and Luca Scatà, 29 - were on patrol in the small city of Sesto San Giovanni about 3am Friday (Dec 23) local time when they came upon a man walking alone next to a subway station that is the northern terminus for one of the lines that take commuters to and from Milan.
They had no idea that the man was Anis Amri, 24, the chief suspect in the truck attack in Berlin on Monday that killed 12 people and injured nearly 50.
The officers asked him for identification. When he responded in Italian that he had no documents on him, they asked him to empty his pockets and backpack. Amri then pulled out a pistol and opened fire, shooting Movio in the shoulder. Scatà returned fire, killing Amri.
Even before German officials had confirmed that Amri was dead, Italian officials, including Paolo Gentiloni, who took office as prime minister only this month, praised the two officers.
"These people in our police forces are exceptional," Interior Minister Marco Minniti said at a news conference. "The police officer who was shot is so young, and he was just doing his job, yet he did an extraordinary service to the community."
Facebook users agreed. Pages sprouted up in honour of Scatà, including some classifying him as a "public figure" and others calling him a world hero and deserving of a medal. His Instagram page, which revealed his roots in Sicily and his interests in bodybuilding, soccer and motorcycling, attracted new followers; it is no longer available. Scatà was ajunior officer who had joined the police force just nine months ago and was still on probation.
Movio, who stopped Amri, was also lauded, albeit with slightly less enthusiasm. He has been on the police force for at least five years. The police distributed an image of Movio from his hospital bed, talking on a cellphone. David-Maria Sassoli, a member of the European Parliament, shared another image of the injured officer, smiling.
The police also distributed an image of Movio's uniform, with a bullet hole in it.
Antonio De Iesu, director of the Milan police, acknowledged that the encounter was the result of chance more than anything, but praised the officers' bravery.
"It was a regular patrol, under the new system of intensified police checks on the territory," De Iesu said. "They had no perception that it could be him - otherwise they'd have been more careful."
Gentiloni, at a news conference at his official residence in Rome, cited "the collaboration between security forces and armed forces, and the importance also of increasing collaboration at the international level.
He also called an Italian who was killed in the Berlin attack, Fabrizia Di Lorenzo, 31, "an exemplary Italian."
Gentiloni's predecessor as prime minister, Matteo Renzi, who resigned this month after voters rejected a referendum he supported that would have amended the constitution, wrote in a Facebook post: "The death of a man is never an event to celebrate, but stopping the killer, who was armed, was essential."
Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano wrote on Twitter: "One success after another! We are a great country! We have great police!"