Silvio Berlusconi's declining political fortunes and never-ending legal woes were yesterday overshadowed by claims that one of his inner circle had been held hostage in a bid to extract €35m from the ex-premier.
The 76-year-old billionaire's trusted accountant, Giuseppe Spinelli, whose job it was to hand envelopes stuffed with cash to young women attending the tycoon's notorious adult parties, has told police that six armed men kept him and his wife captive in their home on 15 October.
Police announced yesterday that three Albanians and three Italians had been arrested in connection with the incident. The ringleader was named as Francesco Leone, a 51-year-old convicted criminal with links to the Sacra Corona Unita – the Puglian mafia.
Mr Spinelli, 71, said the masked men forced him to call Berlusconi to communicate their intention to sell the mogul documents that could extricate his Fininvest holding company from a €560m compensation payment it owes a rival firm.
The head of Milan's anti-mafia police squad Alessandro Giuliano, said: "According to the account of Spinelli, while he was returning home on the 15 October, he was threatened by hooded men on his door step. He was then held captive in his home for the whole night, until nine the next morning when he was made to make a direct phone call to Berlusconi."
But within hours of recounting Mr Spinelli's version of events, the Italian press began to ponder the stranger aspects of the case. It was unclear why Mr Spinelli waited 36 hours after his captors had gone before calling the police or why he was then whisked away by Berlusconi's personal bodyguards. It was reported yesterday that he has since been living in a secret location.
Niccolo Ghedini, Berlusconi's lawyer, said he was confident the documents brandished by the bandits were false: "We never saw them, but judging from what they were claiming, I would say we're talking about a complete bluff," he said.
Mr Spinelli was told by his captors that the evidence could reverse the fortunes of Berlusconi's business empire as it appeals against the giant compensation payment it was ordered to pay the CIR company, owned by the rival mogul Carlo de Benedetti.
Fininvest wrestled control of the Mondadori publishing house from Mr De Benedetti in 1991, in a takeover battle settled in a Rome courtroom. But in 2007 a court in Milan found Berlusconi's former lawyer and close ally Cesare Previti had bribed one of the two Rome judges to rule in favour of Fininvest. Berlusconi himself was cleared of responsibility.
A verdict in the "Rubygate" case, in which Mr Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with an underage girl and of abusing his office to cover up the crime, is expected in February next year.