Mafia chief uses his niece as a junior spy

NAPLES POLICE have discovered the latest weapon used by the Camorra, the local Mafia, in a bloody, year-long turf war. Not bazookas, kalashnikovs nor car bombs - but children.

For Vincenzo Tolomelli, undisputed head of the vicious Tolomelli clan, the eyes and ears of his favourite niece were priceless. They allowed him to anticipate enemy offences, sift out possible traces and identify those responsible for violent attacks on his supporters.

The 10-year-old girl, who was able to pass unnoticed in enemy territory, was used as a spy. Transcriptions of police bugs and phone-tapping show Vincenzo Tolomelli putting the child through a lengthy interrogation, during which she was said to be "composed and articulate". Pressed for details and descriptions of the killers in a rival clan, the girl showed an in-depth knowledge of the personalities involved - and even their Mafia nicknames.

According to the Naples daily Il Mattino, she told her uncle that she had seen his arch-enemy Giuseppe Mizzo, known as "Ochiattone" ("Fatso"), taking part in an armed raid, recognising him despite a wig and heavy disguise. In a second grilling she reportedly gave a detailed run-down of a murder she had witnessed, allowing her uncle to identify the killers.

The use of the young girl as a spy emerged during a probe into the Mafia war that has been going on for over a year in the southern Italian city. In the historic Sanita neighbourhood, the Tolomelli-Vastarella group is pitted against the Mizzo-Pirozzi clan. On a wider scale the conflict is a bitter struggle for control of the organisation, many of whose leaders are now in jail.

Last year 180 people were murdered in Naples, and there has been an escalation in the nature of the violence. The Camorra has even used car bombs that not only target their chosen victims but cause civilian casualties and terror.

Last week police arrested Vincenzo Tolomelli and his right-hand man on charges of murder and illegal possession of weapons. The charges concerned a shoot-out one month ago. One man was killed and four others wounded when four hooded gunmen opened fire and then fled on motorbikes.

Investigators believe that Tolomelli's niece may be not an isolated case but part of a nucleus of "baby spies".

The myth that the Mafia never harms nor involves women and children was shattered some time ago. The use of street-wise youngsters, known as i muschilli ("midges"), is on the rise. They are frequently used as drug couriers, as in Italy children under the age of 14 cannot legally be punished.