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Thursday, 22 February, 2001, 12:42 GMT
Sicilian swoop on Mafia boss
Virga (R)
Masked police officers burst in on Virga
Sicilian police have arrested the man they believe to be the financial brain of the Mafia, Vincenzo Virga - bringing them closer to the alleged boss of bosses, Bernardo Provenzano.

The swoop is the second major victory for the police this year as it follows the arrest of Benedetto Spera, Provenzano's right hand man, three week's ago.

Masked police officers burst in on Virga in a cottage in the town of Trapani in the west of Sicily and confiscated about 17m lire ($8,000) as well as documents.

Virga, who was watching a video documentary about the 1992 assassinations of two anti-Mafia judges at the time, is reported to have looked surprised but not to have resisted arrest.

Mafia magician

Virga had been on the run since 1994 and has already received a life sentence for the murders of a judge and a journalist.

But police say his real skill was in masterminding the intricate financial dealings of the Mafia.

Benedetto Spera
Benedetto Spera: Police now have two of Provenzano's henchmen
"He is a magician in piloting contracts. We have caught the business brain of Bernardo Provenzano," said police chief Giuseppe Linares.

Mr Linares said that for a long time Virga's strong political and social support had made it hard to arrest him.

It now appears that Provenzano's days on the run could be numbered.

Police blunder

Provenzano - also known as the Tractor because of his physical bulk and the way he mows his opponents down - went underground almost 40 years ago.

The arrest of two of his most powerful henchmen strikes a blow at the empire he took over after the arrest of Tito Riina in 1993.

For the past few weeks, police have been trying to close the net on Provenzano by following clues found in letters written by his wife, which they confiscated during Benedetto Spera's arrest.

They think that a package of warm clothing which she mentions in one letter means that Provenzano is hiding out in the mountains.

But despite their successes, Sicilian police have been criticised by colleagues in the Carabinieri - Italy's military police - for their handling of one of their arrests.

The Carabinieri say the police blundered in when they arrested Mafioso Nicola La Barbera.

They think La Barbera was about to deliver letters to Provenzano, and might have led them right to his door.

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Mafia - past and present
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