Italy fires chiefs of three spy agencies

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ROME (AP) - The Italian government has dismissed the chiefs of three spy agencies which have been long suspected of such misdeeds as coup-plotting and widespread theft. Commentators said that the dismissals were an attempt by the government of the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to assert control over the intelligence agencies.

The Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, announced the shake-up yesterday, together with the disclosure that the secret services had kept files on 21 political figures and 45 parties and movements across the spectrum of Italian politics.

He said most of the files on the 21 people - including the President, Mr Maroni's predecessor and two former prime ministers - were part of efforts to protect them.

'Anyway, it's inadmissible that political parties . . . and their exponents be put under surveillance without telling those involved,' Mr Maroni said. He did not state the purpose of the files unrelated to protection, or to those kept on the parties.

The government appointed new chiefs to the military and civilian intelligence agencies and a third agency that co-ordinates the work of the two branches. For the first time in 16 years, a military officer was named to head the civilian agency. He is General Gaetano Marino, of the paramilitary carabinieri.

The Rome newspaper, La Repubblica, said the moves were aimed at 'unhinging, once and for all, all the old intelligence assets. Final objective: more government control on the spy networks.'

Also yesterday, a special court heard testimony from former interior ministers accused of receiving illegal payments from the civilian agency. Seven former agency officials are on trial in a separate Rome court in connection with the payments, which came from an alleged slush fund of tens of millions of lira.

The services have for long been accused of lack of accountability. For years, intelligence officials have been suspected of acting on behalf of right-wing forces or shadowy conspiracies outside the government.