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This Europe: Celebrities are investigated over hideaway villas that 'flout island's laws'

The Sicilian holiday island of Pantelleria, volcanic refuge for a host of A-list celebrities including Madonna, Julia Roberts, Sting, Giorgio Armani and Joseph Fiennes, is under a cloud this week with the announcement that several, though none of the above, of its famous residents are being investigated for allegedly violating building regulations.

The celebrities being investigated are the French actor Gérard Depardieu, the conductor Riccardo Muti and Fabrizio Ferri, a fashion photographer.

In the main town of the island, one third the size of the Isle of Wight and half way to Tunisia, Maria Angioni, the substitute public prosecutor, sought to minimise the importance of the investigation. "There are so many building regulations on Pantelleria that just by moving a single stone you risk being prosecuted. These things are just trifles that catch the attention of the media because the names of the people involved make news," she said.

Ms Angioni's attempt to deflect attention from the case seems doomed to fail. Pantelleria, "black pearl" of the Mediterranean, has become, despite its forbidding appearance, one of the most glamorous spots in Europe. And many of the island's rich property owners have bought traditional, stone-built, domed Arab farmhouses of the type, known as dammuso, peculiar to the island and converted them into splendid villas - even though, as Ms Angioni points out, the notional building regulations on the island are draconian.

Many of these villas now have paths down to the sea, also built, according to the rumours, without official permission. There is also the small matter of the island's swimming pools: 700 of them, it is said, and none built by going through the correct channels.

Scandal is not unknown to this island on which Allied bombs rained in 1943 in preparation for the invasion of Sicily. Last summer the island's calm was shattered when the mayor, Alberto di Marzo, was arrested with several businessmen on the island. They are accused of extorting money in Mafia style in connection with public building works and are now awaiting trial.

The businessmen with whom Mr di Marzo is alleged to be in cahoots, Antonino and Antonio Messina, father and son aged 68 and 41 respectively, are also accused of illegal arms trafficking, in league with an Albanian partner, after Kalashnikov guns were found at their home.

Mr di Marzo's arrest has been linked to the interrogation earlier this year of his political ally Bartolo Pellegrino, a regional councillor in Palermo, the Sicilian capital, after police intercepted telephone conversations between Mr Pellegrino and presumed Mafiosi. In a search of the mayor's home, police found a ledger of sums extorted and persons extorted from.

He was a prominent, outgoing character, a regular fixture at the parties thrown in the island's exclusive villas. Pantelleria has long had its enthusiasts, but in the past 15 years its eccentric charms - its ravishingly beautiful sea (though no beaches), health-giving sulphurous mud pools and exotic Arab architecture - have made the place an open secret among the rich and famous.

Gérard Depardieu was an early convert, buying his own dammuso house back in 1989, planting a vineyard and enclosing the house with a wall of volcanic stone. The wall is what has got Depardieu into trouble: built, so the allegation goes, without permission. Many other celebrities have made their own hideaways. The fashion designer Giorgio Armani was another early arrival, and now owns a spectacular cliff-side villa.

Fabrizio Ferri, a fashion photographer, is another who has sunk roots in the island, inviting Madonna and Guy Ritchie, her husband, to stay and opening a chic hotel based on ancient dammusi.

It was Mr Ferri who proposed - to the disgust of many celebrities, who appreciate Pantelleria's nearly impregnable privacy - starting a direct air service to the island.

In the investigation made public this week, Mr Ferri is accused of building a road fit for cars from his property, which is inside a natural reserve, without permission.