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Friday, June 26, 1998 Published at 22:14 GMT 23:14 UK

World: Europe

Mafia showdown averted

Police photographs of Maria Rita Santamaria (left) and Giuseppa Vitale, who were among those arrested

Thanks to the latest telephone interception technology, police in Italy have arrested 80 people suspected of involvement in a feud between two rival Sicilian mafia clans.

The arrests were made in a combined operation involving forces from the Sicilian towns of Catania and Palermo, the main cities of the Mediterranean island.

[ image: Vito Vitale, suspected clan leader]
Vito Vitale, suspected clan leader
All those arrested have links either with the Corleone clan, based around Palermo, or the Catania mob based in the east of Sicily. Investigators say the two clans were preparing for a final settling of scores.

The BBC Rome correspondent says this latest Mafia crackdown shows that Italian police have moved rapidly ahead in their investigations thanks to their ability to listen in to gangster conversations on mobile phones.

The Mafia appears to have seriously under-estimated the new technology being used by the police to intercept communications.

Warning ignored - a fatal mistake

The police even went to the trouble of warning one Mafia gangster that they had learnt he was on the hit list of a rival gang, but he declined to listen to them. Two weeks later he was shot dead.

Among those arrested was Giuseppa Vitale, the sister of Vito Vitale, who is still thought to lead the Corleone clan from his prison cell.

Three women were also arrested, including Genette Scott, the widow of a former Mafia boss, whose parents are British.

The charges against those arrested include murder, theft, drug trafficking and gun running.

The Sicilian justice authorities claim that they have broken the power of the Mafia in Catania, the biggest city in eastern Sicily.

Italian journalist Gaia Servadio: Sicilians sorry to see troops go
The battle against the Mafia in Sicily continues, although the last of the 7,000 troops sent to the island six years ago were withdrawn earlier this week.

They arrived on the island after the declaration of a state of emergency when the Mafia murdered two senior judges.

Rita Borsellino, the sister of one of the judges, told reporters: "The emergency continues. Why send the soldiers home?"

The reason for their withdrawal, apart from the high cost, appears to be an attempt by the Italian government to reassure its European partners that Mafia crime is now under better control than at any time since the end of World War II.

Our correspondent says that the Italian government's view may not be shared by their European counterparts.

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