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The war continues as Italy mourns right-to-die symbol

Rome — Italy was in mourning Tuesday for Eluana Englaro, the comatose woman at the center of a bitter right-to-die debate, who passed away just as senators began debating legislation aimed at keeping her alive.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had tried to override the wishes of Englaro’s family, said the 38-year-old had been "killed" by her removal from a life support machine after being locked in a coma since 1992.

The premier’s opponents, however, accused him of trying to politicize a private tragedy and of using it as a pretext to grab power from President Giorgio Napolitano, who had blocked an earlier attempt to keep her alive.

The bitterness surrounding her fate was also highlighted when police had to separate rival groups of protestors overnight outside the health clinic in the northern city of Udine where she died.

The divide was also reflected in the Italian press, with the leftist La Republica hailing "The End of the Ordeal" while the headline of Il Giornale, part of Berlusconi’s media empire,  read "They Killed Her."

Englaro, whose father won a 10-year legal battle to have her removed from life support, died suddenly Monday evening, three days after doctors removed her feeding tube.

Her death was announced just as senators began discussing a bill that would have forced doctors to restore her life support

The Vatican, which has a heavy influence in Italy, in particular over the political class, reacted swiftly to the news of Englaro’s death, imploring God to "forgive" those responsible.

"May the Lord welcome her and forgive those who led her there (to her death)," the Vatican’s "health minister" Javier Lozano Barragan was quoted as saying.

And Berlusconi weighed in Tuesday with an opinion piece in the right-wing Libero daily in which he wrote: "Eluana did not die a natural death. She was killed."

Napolitano last week rejected as unconstitutional an emergency government text that would bar the suspension of food and water to unconscious patients.

The prime minister then proposed a change to the constitution that would allow him to issue a decree without requiring the president’s signature.

Anna Finocchiaro, the head of the opposition Democratic Party’s group in the Senate, said Englaro’s death has derailed a center-right bid to mount a "devastating political operation, the reduction of the powers of the head of state, emergency decrees without brakes."

In an interview with the La Republica daily, she accused the ruling center-right of expressing "callous and irresponsible rage" when some senators burst into shouts of "murderers" on news of Englaro’s death.

Finocchio reserved worse criticism for Berlusconi, whom she accused of "callous profiteering."

Meanwhile, news reports said police had to intervene overnight to prevent clashes between protesters for and against euthanasia outside the clinic in northern Udine where Englaro died.

Some members of the larger anti-euthanasia group shouted "murderers" and "bandits" at a group holding a banner expressing solidarity with Englaro’s father, the ANSA news agency reported.

Authorities met early Tuesday to discuss an autopsy for Englaro, who died much faster than her doctors expected.

Court authorities said an autopsy would take place, without specifying a date.

Englaro’s rapid death took doctors by surprise. Her neurologist had predicted that she would not die before February 17.

Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Conference of Bishops, said an autopsy would deliver "justice" to Englaro. "We want to know everything," the daily said.

On Monday after bitter debate, the senators agreed to expedite work on a draft law that has been languishing in committee regarding end-of-life issues.

Englaro’s family won a legal battle in November to allow her to die after she spent 17 years in a coma following a traffic accident.

Courts pronounced themselves satisfied that Englaro’s coma was irreversible, and that she had clearly expressed her wish not be kept alive artificially when a close friend fell into a coma after a different accident.

While euthanasia is illegal in Italy, patients have the right to refuse care.

Englaro’s case was reminiscent of that of American Terry Schiavo, who was in a vegetative state for 15 years before she died in the American state of Florida in March 2005.

Her death followed a long court battle during which then-president George W. Bush flew to Washington from a vacation at his Texan ranch to try to overturn a court ruling under which she was allowed to die.