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 Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 15:42 GMT
Ex-PM was Mafia's man says turncoat
Giulio Andreotti
Andreotti has denied the charges against him
Mafia supergrass Antonio Giuffre has told an Italian court that former prime minister Giulio Andreotti was a key Mafia contact during his long political career.

None of these ringleaders or their henchmen contacted me directly

Giulio Andreotti
In a makeshift courtroom in a Milan prison bunker, Mr Giuffre said the Cosa Nostra had helped Mr Andreotti rise to the top, and had asked him to shield them from magistrates.

Mr Andreotti, aged 83, denied the allegations saying that he had never been contacted directly by Mafia bosses or their henchmen.

Screen shielding Giuffre from the court
Giuffre testified behind a screen
He faces a possible 10-year sentence for collusion with the Mafia if the trial goes against him.

He has already once been acquitted, in 1999 - the current hearings are part of an appeal brought by prosecutors.

Evidence from turncoats such as Mr Giuffre forms a key part of the prosecution case.

'Positive answers'

Before his arrest last April, Mr Giuffre was a key aide to Bernardo Provenzano, the Cosa Nostra "boss of bosses" who has been on the run for the past three decades.

Mr Giuffre named Mafia leaders whom he said had reportedly had direct meetings with Mr Andreotti, including Stefano Bontade, and Nino Salvo.

I heard it said that in one of these meetings Bontade had dotted the i's and crossed the t's, that in Sicily it was the Mafia who counted and not Andreotti

Antonio Giuffre
He said another Mafia boss, Michele Greco, had later expressed satisfaction for the "positive answers" allegedly received from Mr Andreotti to requests to their protect the Mafia from the security forces and judiciary.

He also said that Mr Andreotti's connections with the Mafia strengthened his influence within the Christian Democratic party.

Mr Andreotti, who was prime minister seven times, ridiculed Mr Giuffre's testimony.

"If one says something so generic like he was helping them, well: Where? How? To do what?," he said in comments shown on Rai television.

Vendetta claim

He also specifically rejected the allegation that he had met Stefano Bontade, saying that it was "well documented" that this story was not true.

The veteran politician was sentenced in a separate case last year to 24 years in jail for complicity in the murder of a journalist - a ruling that he said took his breath away.

He has claimed that he is the subject of a vendetta by political rivals, and by gangsters who were targeted by anti-Mafia crackdowns during his period in power.

Mr Giuffre will give evidence again on Friday, then the case will return to Palermo.

Italian law does not allow the jailing of anyone over 75, so the worst Mr Andreotti can expect for the time being is house arrest.

He will remain free until the appeals process is exhausted.

The Christian Democratic Party formed every post-war Italian Government until it collapsed in a bribery scandal in the early 1990s.

  The BBC's Brian Barron
"According to the supergrass Prime Minister Berlusconi secretly met mafiosi"
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