The vandalistic attack on Portes des Bombes, in Floriana brought widespread condemnation and disbelief as to why anyone would try to ruin such a beautiful structure.

Unknown persons daubed black burnt oil on the recently restored gate late on Monday evening.

The same substance was also thrown on the side of the Catholic Institute, in Floriana during the night. But here, bright green paint was also splashed along with the oil.

The police, who are considering the incident a "serious crime" which damaged Malta's heritage, are appealing to anyone who might have any information that can help them catch the culprit/s to phone them on 2122 1111.

Strict confidentiality would be observed, Criminal Investigation Department chief Emanuel Cassar told the media at a press briefing yesterday afternoon. By yesterday the police had not made any arrests.

Mr Cassar said the police are trying to establish whether there was any connection with other incidents involving the splashing of paint or burnt oil in recent days.

The night before burnt oil was splashed on the façade of the St Paul's Bay Nationalist Party club. On Monday night a private residence in Mtarfa and a commercial premises in Ûurrieq were similarly vandalised. Burnt oil was also found on the ground close to the former Gasan showroom in Pietà, Mr Cassar said.

Asked whether CCTV cameras at the US Embassy and the HSBC Bank, both situated close to the Catholic Institute, were of any help to investigators, Mr Cassar said all possibilities are being considered.

This act of "cultural terrorism", as a heritage lover described the vandalism, brought condemnation from the Resources and Infrastructure Ministry, Mepa and the Floriana local council,the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and the Valletta Rehabilitation Project (VRP).

"It is a barbaric act against one of the national monuments which enrich Malta's heritage," VRP executive coordinator, Ray Bondin, said.

Motorists driving to or from Valletta yesterday morning were outraged at the site of the defaced monument. It must be the act of a coward unfortunately also afflicted by a sick mind, one motorist protested.

Black burnt oil was thrown molotov-cocktail style in beer bottles in two spots on both the façades of the gate, the one facing Blata l-Bajda and the other Floriana.

The Ministry for Resources and the Infrastructure strongly condemned the "irresponsible and shameful act of vandalism".

It called on members of the public with any information about the incident to approach the police to help them in their investigations to trace the culprits.

Sources said one had to keep in mind that since the monument was defaced in various parts, which meant the perpetrators must have remained on site for some time, it was possible that motorists passing by at the time could have seen something.

It is believed Portes des Bombes was vandalised just before 10 p.m.

The ministry said work was started immediately to clean the historic gate which was restored at a cost of Lm55,000 in 2002/2003.

A ministry spokesman said workers from the restoration unit of the Works Division within the ministry intervened immediately using a special chemical solution to clean the oil before it penetrated the stone.

The cleaning work is expected to continue today.

Magistrate Joseph Apap Bologna has opened an inquiry and appointed architect Richard England as court expert to help.

Catholic Institute director Fr Gwann Galea said he could not think of any connection with the Portes des Bombes incident.

Mepa's chairman, Andrew Calleja, said "all citizens with any sense of pride in their country feel outrage at this. Attacks on nature and heritage, even when reversible, frequently leave their mark".

Condemning the incident as a shameful criminal and cruel act against national heritage, Floriana mayor Publio Agius appealed to anyone with information to come forward.

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage said the act brings out the worst elements of a small minority which believes its will should be imposed upon that of others.

The act of vandalism against one of Malta's foremost monuments is obviously meant to make a statement of sorts, which statement, however, can only be negative, it added.

Sadly, the attack on Portes des Bombes can do no more than devalue our cultural heritage and leave a shameful mark on our country, the superintendence said.

A major facelift and other restoration works on Portes des Bombes had started in September 2002 and was completed in March the following year.

A private contractor had removed layers of soot and grime accumulated over the past three centuries uncovering again the Baroque stonework.

During restoration work, a huge banner bearing a full size print of Portes des Bombes covered the old structure in order to mask the scaffolding. The banner, which was put up at a cost of Lm7,500, was ripped in January 2003. It was thought that strong winds had taken their toll but Paul Mizzi, owner of the company which had provided the custom-made banner was convinced that a vandal was responsible.

A new floodlighting system had also been installed at Portes des Bombes at a cost of Lm12,000.

Portes des Bombes was one of five archways built around Floriana as part of the fortifications of the locality, designed by engineer Pietro Paolo Floriani under Grand Master Antoine de Paule (1622-36).

It was the principal entrance to Floriana and was built together with the other fortifications in 1721 by Grand Master Ramon Perellos, whose coat of arms appears at the top of what was essentially a gate.

The entrance had seen several modifications, made necessary by the gradual increase of traffic into Floriana and Valletta over the years. In time the entire structure was completely cut off from the bastions to make room for a road to cope with the increasing volume of traffic.

The main inscription in Latin on Portes des Bombes, literally translated, reads "For the comfort of the people".

Nationalist MPs Mario de Marco, Michael Asciak and Franco Galea condemned the vandalism when speaking in Parliament on the adjournment yesterday.

Dr de Marco said the recent restoration of Portes des Bombes had drawn admiration, and, he was sure, the Maltese were now united in condemning this cowardly attack, without reservation.

Dr Asciak said this vandalism showed that the perpetrators were not proud to be Maltese and did not appreciate their country's national heritage.

Mr Galea said this vandalism harmed Malta's heritage and tourism and he hoped that the perpetrators would be arraigned in court.

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