ROME (Reuters) - The father of an Italian woman who has been in a coma for 17 years defied the Vatican and Italy's center-right government Tuesday, moving her to a private clinic where a feeding tube keeping her alive will be removed.
Eluana Englaro, 38, has been in a vegetative state since a 1992 car crash. Italy's top court ruled last year that she can be allowed to die but the decision was contested by politicians and prelates and split public opinion in this Catholic country.
In the early hours of Tuesday the woman was taken by ambulance to a hospice in the northern city of Udine, the only one in Italy that has agreed to stop feeding and hydrating her.
Anti-euthanasia activists carrying bread and water -- which have become the symbol of the protest against removing the tube -- tried to prevent the vehicle from leaving.
"In a few days Italy will execute its first death sentence since 1948," said Alfredo Mantovano, an Interior Ministry undersecretary. The government says that removing the feeding tube amounts to euthanasia, which is illegal in Italy.
Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the Vatican's equivalent of a health minister, said in an interview with La Repubblica daily: "To withdraw food and water from her means only one thing, and that is deliberately killing her."
Eluana's father, Beppino Englaro, has battled his way through Italy's courts for more than 10 years to allow his daughter to die.
Last November, the country's top court ruled in his favor, rejecting an appeal against a previous ruling by a lower tribunal in Milan which -- for the first time in mainly Catholic Italy -- had allowed him to disconnect the feeding tube.
The Milan court said it had been proved that Englaro's coma was irreversible and that before the accident she had stated her preference to die rather than be kept alive artificially.
"I feel that I can now free the most splendid creature I have ever known," Beppino Englaro, who rarely speaks in public, said after that ruling.
But Maurizio Sacconi, health minister in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right government, issued an order barring all state and private clinics from withdrawing nutrition from comatose patients.
Critics say the order has no legal value because it cannot overrule the decision by the top court. Still, several clinics contacted by Englaro's father turned him down, saying they feared retaliation from the government.
Eluana has been called "Italy's Terri Schiavo" -- the American who spent 15 years in a vegetative state and was allowed to die in 2005 after a long court battle.
Medical experts say it could take around two weeks for Eluana to die after the feeding tube is removed but that she would feel no pain. Doctors at the Udine clinic said Tuesday she will stop being fed in three days' time and that she will be sedated to avoid any possible discomfort.
Additional reporting by Sara Rossi; editing by Myra MacDonald