Berlusconi loyalist was 'solid ally of the Mafia' cause

One of Silvio Berlusconi's closest associates was described by a fugitive Mafia gangster as "a solid ally" in a phone conversation taped by prosecutors in Palermo.

Marcello dell'Utri, a co-founder of Mr Berlusconi's party, Forza Italia, and an MEP, was sentenced in June 2003 to nine years in jail for collusion with the Mafia. He denied the charges and his appeal comes up in June. Now prosecutors are preparing to defend the case with new evidence that they say implicates him ever more closely. They claim the evidence shows Mafia gangsters appealing to Dell'Utri to derail attempts to extradite one of their number from South Africa, and offering to cut him in on construction deals in Angola.

At the centre of the revelations is Vito Roberto Palazzolo, a notorious Mafia "banker" linked to Bernardo Provenzano, the godfather arrested this month in Corleone, Sicily, and his sanguinary predecessor Salvatore Riina, who is serving life in an Italian jail.

Palazzolo, imprisoned in Switzerland for laundering drug money, absconded to South Africa in 1986.

In 2003 prosecutors from Palermo attempted to have him extradited to face Mafia charges in Sicily. Domenico Gozzo, a vice-prosecutor, said that trying to tackle organised crime without his evidence was "like emptying the sea with a teaspoon".

The new tapes reveal Palazzolo urging his sister Sara, in Sicily, to put pressure on Dell'Utri. "Don't worry, you don't have to convert him, he's already been converted," Palazzolo says.

Not long afterwards, in April 2004, the extradition request was quietly shelved.

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