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Berlusconi 'cut deal with Mafia', court told

Former hitman claims Italian PM gave 'benefits' to the Mob for political support

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, made a deal with the Sicilian Mafia in the early 1990s that put the country "in the hands" of the Mob, a court in Turin was told yesterday.

Gaspare Spatuzza, a jailed Mafia hitman turned witness, told a packed and heavily guarded bunker courtroom that his Cosa Nostra Godfather boss had cut a deal with Mr Berlusconi in 1993 that provided unspecified "benefits" to the Mafia in exchange for political support. The media tycoon entered politics a few months later and won his first term as Prime Minister in 1994.

Spatuzza said his boss, Giuseppe Graviano, who was jailed over Mafia bomb attacks in Rome, Milan and Florence, had told him that the Mob had "got everything" with the help of Mr Berlusconi, adding that Graviano called Mr Berlusconi "the man from Channel 5", in reference to his TV network.

The damaging claims came at the appeal hearing of Marcello Dell'Utri, a key Berlusconi associate and senator, who is challenging his nine-year jail sentence for links with the Mafia.

Spatuzza, in prison for several murders, testified: "Graviano told me the name of Berlusconi and said that thanks to him and the man from our home town [an apparent reference to Dell' Utri] we have the country in our hands."

Mr Berlusconi has denounced the claims of Spatuzza as "vile", and "unfounded and defamatory", denying ever having links with the Mafia. The Prime Minister's spokesman said the testimony yesterday was the Mafia's "completely logical" revenge against the Prime Minister for his "determined" fight against organised crime.

Dell'Utri told the court that neither he nor Mr Berlusconi had Mafia connections. "It's in the interest of the Mafia to force the collapse of the Berlusconi government because this government has done the most in the fight against organised crime," he said. Mr Berlusconi, who recently lost his legal immunity to prosecution, was said to have been furious this week, after the parliamentary Speaker, Gianfranco Fini, the man who is supposed to be his closest ally, had said that the Spatuzza evidence was "an atomic bomb".

Mr Fini was recorded by an unobserved microphone while talking privately at an official dinner. Rumours of the conservative Prime Minister's links with the Mob have persisted since investigators learnt that a Cosa Nostra hitman, Vittorio Mangano, worked as Mr Berlusconi's "stable-master" at the media mogul's villa in Arcore outside Milan in the 1970s. Much speculation has also centred on the origins of Mr Berlusconi's vast wealth.

Last week, the Prime Minister's broadcast group, Mediaset, and his holding company, Fininvest, announced it intended to sue the left-wing newspaper La Repubblica over an article that said Mediaset was "20 per cent owned by the Mafia".

La Stampa newspaper noted that the "dread combination of Mafia allegations and separation from his wife are now his principal torments". Mr Berlusconi's estranged wife, Veronica Lario, is said to be seeking a £3m-a-month divorce settlement, and a messy courtroom battle looms. Mr Berlusconi also faces a retrial on the charge that he bribed the British lawyer David Mills to lie in court.