Devil in the detail of Sicily's mysterious village fires

Is Lucifer loose on Sicily? No lesser figure than the honorary president of the International Association of Exorcists believes he may be.

"What is happening is what normally happens when the devil enters the lives of those who let him in," Father Gabriele Amorth said yesterday as scientists and officials confessed themselves unable to explain a string of fires and explosions which began in the middle of last month in the fishermen's quarter of a Sicilian village.

Thirty-nine inhabitants of Caronia, on the north coast, were preparing to spend their third night away from their homes last night, having been evacuated at the weekend.

Since then, in an operation that could have come straight from the television series X Files, a multi-disciplinary team of experts armed with measuring devices has been examining the area for clues to the spontaneous combustion of washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, electricity meters and cables.

Gianfranco Allegra, of the Italian Centre for Electro-technical Experimentation, told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that he had watched as "an electrical wire lying on the floor that was not plugged in to the mains inexplicably caught fire". When he reported the incident to his superiors in Milan he was told to sober up.

What makes the incidents all the more puzzling is that the area has been without an electricity supply since January 4.

On Monday the affair took a new turn when a chair burst into flames. Then a fire started in a water pipe.

The mayor of Caronia, Pedro Spinnato, said yesterday: "I have no idea what is going on."

He believed that arson had been ruled out.

Tullio Martella, the regional civil defence chief, said the fires and blasts seemed to derive "from a dispersion of electrical energy, but the origin of the presumed dispersion has yet to be determined".

The houses in which the fires have broken out are all in an area 350 metres (about 380 yards) by 70 metres between the shoreline and a railway.

At first suspicion centred on the railway line, but that has now been discounted.

Yesterday technicians were busy measuring emissions from local mobile telephone facilities.

But Fr Amorth said they should not rule out vibes of a different sort.

"The priest of the parish ought today to go and bless all the houses that have witnessed paranormal phenomena, because that is what they are," he said.