Death, drugs and diamonds in tale of global conspiracy

Andrew Gumbel reports on a web of intrigue unearthed in Italy

It began, like all the best thrillers, with a mysterious death. Last July a colonel in Italy's military intelligence service, Mario Ferraro, was found hanged from a bath rail by his dressing gown cord. Less than a year later the affair has mushroomed into a global conspiracy fresh from the pages of an improbable blockbuster.

Colonel Ferraro, it turns out, was working to unravel a massive global traffic in arms, drugs, radioactive materials and gems. And where he started, prosecutors from Torre Annunziata, near Naples, have carried on, following a trail of smugglers, dirty money recycled from the war in the Balkans, and murky interests in high places.

This weekend came the most spectacular blitz so far; a flurry of arrests and investigations featuring the oddest array of suspects. Among international figures wanted for questioning are Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Russian ultra- nationalist presidential candidate; Ricardo Maria Carles, the Archbishop of Barcelona; a Somali businessman; and Licio Gelli, the Grandmaster of the illegal Italian Masonic Lodge, P2.

Between them, this motley crew is named in connection with trafficking everything from Kalashnikovs to plutonium, and re-cycling the profits through some surprising channels including the Institute for Religious Works, better known as the Vatican Bank.

Mr Zhirinovsky is suspected of coordinating the sale of nuclear materials via his secretary, who acts as a honorary consul in Russia for the Liberian government.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Carles was responsible, according to one key witness, for transferring some $100m illegally from the Vatican Bank to a Swiss businessman.

In all, hundreds of people in more than 10 countries are suspected of taking part in the racket, which apparently began to provide weapons to Croatia and Slovenia at the start of the Balkan wars, and then turned around 180 degrees when the arms market in the former Yugoslavia became saturated.

The traffickers bought up small arms in Bosnia and Croatia and sold them, accepting the drugs, gems and nuclear materials in a massive, highly complex international barter system.

Quite how prosecutors stumbled on a criminal conspiracy of this magnitude is not clear, since much of the evidence has remained confidential. But it seems the case started with an intercepted cellular telephone call made by a Neopolitan fishmonger. Colonel Ferraro almost certainly died because he knew too much. The magistrate in charge of the inquiry team, Alfredo Ormanni, believes they have reached a crucial stage by uncovering the core mechanism at the heart of the operation, code-named "Cheque to cheque" by Italian police.

There could be more revelations to come. A former colleague of Colonel Ferraro's, Francesco Elmo, has written a memo combining fact, confidential intelligence and rumour that would make any prosecutor's hair stand on end.

Did Yasser Arafat sell 30 kilos of gold to swell the PLO's coffers? Was the Somali businessman in cahoots with the disgraced former Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi? Were submarines traded illegally in Albania's territorial waters? We will have to wait for prosecutor Ormanni's next move to find out.

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