Rome braces for 'prophet-predicted quake'

media captionThe BBC's Duncan Kennedy says some people are taking the day off work

Thousands of people are reported to be staying out of Rome for the next few days, over fears the city will be hit by a huge earthquake.

The panic was sparked by rumours that seismologist Raffaele Bendandi, who died in 1979, predicted the city would be devastated by a quake on 11 May.

Officials have insisted quakes cannot be predicted and special programmes have run on state TV calling for calm.

Experts also say there is no evidence Bendandi even made the prediction.

But many people said they were leaving the city to be on the safe side.

There are reports of an 18% increase in the number of city employees planning to stay away from work.

"I'm going to tell the boss I've got a medical appointment and take the day off," barman Fabio Mengarelli told Reuters.

"If I have to die, I want to die with my wife and kids, and masses of people will do the same as me."

Another Roman, Tania Cotorobai, told Reuters she planned to spend Wednesday in the countryside.

"I don't know if I really believe it but if you look at the internet you see everything and the opposite of everything, and it ends up making you nervous."

Other people were more sceptical, or said they would make the most of the capital being slightly quieter.

"It's all just stupid - but anyway if it does happen it would be a good thing, tidy things up a bit," said Augusto Costa.

While Franceso Verselli said that Rome would be spared because it was home to the Pope: "Wherever the Pope is, nothing will happen."

'Urban myth'

The rumours have been circulating on the streets and online for months that the Eternal City is facing imminent destruction.

They were based on work by Bendandi, who was knighted by Mussolini in 1927 for his prophetic meteorological skill.

He was said to have used his theory that the movement of the planets caused seismic activity to accurately predict a 1923 quake that killed 1,000 people.

According to the rumours, before he died he pinpointed 11 May 2011 as the day Rome would be totally destroyed - to be followed by two more catastrophic events in May 2012.

Italian concerns have been heightened after the deadly quake in L'Aquila in 2009, and reports that scientist Giampaolo Giuliani had been trying to warn officials in the days before.

But the president of the Osservatorio Geofisico Comunale, the foundation that honours Bendandi, said they had no record of the much-discussed prediction and have dismissed it as an urban myth.

"I can say with absolute certainty that in the papers of Raffaele Bendandi there is no provision for an earthquake in Rome on the 11 May 2011," Paola Lagorio told Abruzzo in March.

"The date is not there, nor is the place."

Tommaso Profeta, head of Rome's civil protection services, told La Repubblica he had received a lot of calls from concerned Rome residents but that there was no danger.

"That said, our plan is to be prepared for natural disaster."

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