July 8, 2015 / 8:06 AM / 5 years ago

Italian police seize 1.6 billion euros of assets in mafia bust

PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) - Italian police seized assets worth more than 1.6 billion euros ($1.77 billion) on Wednesday from five Sicilian siblings suspected of links to the island’s Cosa Nostra mafia, in one of the biggest ever such operations.

The three Virga brothers and two sisters - described as “businesspeople” from the area around Sicily’s main city Palermo - allegedly received help from Italy’s most storied criminal group to receive construction contracts related to public works.

There was no immediate comment from the Virga family.

The Palermo division of Italy’s dedicated anti-mafia police (DIA) said they had seized dozens of bank accounts, motor vehicles and some 800 buildings including houses and factories.

“Today’s seizure is certainly one of the biggest the DIA has carried out in its 20-year history,” vice chief of DIA operations Adelmo Lusi told a news conference.

“The (1.6 billion euro) sum is enormous for a family unit that until 30 years ago was made up of carpenters, manual labourers and housewives.”

Italy has battled for decades against criminal organisations that run personal fiefdoms, especially in the poorer south, and three years of recession have helped corruption to flourish.

Cosa Nostra - or “Our Thing” - was the country’s most powerful mafia group in the 1980s and 1990s, but has since been overtaken by the Naples-based Camorra and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta organisations.

The Virgas allegedly collaborated with Cosa Nostra to share out public works contracts among their businesses, 30 of which have been seized, police said.

The family, which also had links to jailed mob boss Salvatore “Toto” Riina, had reported alleged mafia extortion attempts in the past, but the police said they believed this was a ruse aimed at covering their tracks.

“The attempt by the mafia to become the anti-mafia ... was pure strategy,” Palermo DIA director Riccardo Sciuto said.

Italy ranked 69th of 177 countries in global anti-corruption group Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index. Italy, a founder member of the European Union, ranked joint worst among EU member states along with Greece, Romania and Bulgaria.

($1 = 0.9064 euros)

Additional reporting and writing by Isla Binnie; Editing by Gareth Jones

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