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Italy prays Di Pietro is cleared

Last night they were saying a mass for Antonio Di Pietro in his home town of Montenero di Bisaccia in the mountains of central Italy. At his present residence of Curno, near Milan, a group of supporters staged a silent march to show their solidarity for a national hero in his hour of need.

Italy has spent the weekend in a state of shock after Mr Di Pietro, star of the anti- corruption investigations that toppled the old political order four years ago, had all his homes and offices searched by police who believe he may have been corrupted by the very politicians and businessmen he once prosecuted.

The affair, which has seethed ever since Mr Di Pietro unexpectedly resigned from the magistrature two years ago, has blown up into a national controversy over the past few months, as Mr Di Pietro first joined the present government as public works minister, and then resigned last month because of the growing judicial case against him.

Yesterday, Mr Di Pietro broke a 48-hour silence to lambast his enemies for mounting a "squalid vendetta" against him. According to judicial sources, the suspicion which prompted Friday's police raids is that he accepted money from a key witness in the anti- corruption investigations, a Swiss-based banker called Pierfrancesco Pacini Battaglia who was questioned for 11 hours in 1993 and then released.

Mr Pacini Battaglia has recently returned to the attention of the magistrature, this time as a key player in a new corruption scandal involving the state railway company and a prominent arms manufacturer, and is at present under house arrest following a lengthy period in preventive custody.

Mr Di Pietro said yesterday he could disprove the charges against him, but the affair has gone beyond a simple matter of ascertaining the truth and evolved into a full-blown power struggle pitting rival forces in politics and the judiciary.