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Toxic shipwreck turns out to be red herring

October 30, 2009

By Guy Dinmore and Eleonora de Sabata in Rome, Oct 30, 2009

Italian prosecutors searching for the wreck of a ship allegedly scuttled by the mafia with toxic waste on board in 1992 say the vessel they surveyed this week in deep waters off the coast of Calabria turned out instead to be a passenger steamship sunk by a German submarine in 1917.

Fears of coastal pollution had led to protests by local fishermen, residents and mayors who accused the central government of not doing enough to resolve the issue.

Prosecutors told a news conference in Rome on Thursday evening that after finding the World War One wreck of the Catania they had decided to call off the search for a ship which Francesco Fonti, a mafia turncoat, claims to have sent to the bottom with dynamite in 1992.

Mr Fonti’s allegations, first made to prosecutors in 2003, followed years of inconclusive investigations into at least 20 suspicious sinkings of ships in the Mediterranean in the 1980s and 1990s. Prosecutors suspected that the mafia was dumping toxic waste at sea, possibly working on behalf of industrialists and government agencies.

On Thursday one of the prosecutors questioned Mr Fonti’s reliability as a source on the alleged sinkings, although he conceded that his collaboration with the police since 1994 had resulted in high profile arrests of members of Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia involved in drug trafficking.

Mr Fonti claims to have scuttled three ships off the Calabrian coast in 1992, and that one of them, possibly called the Cunski, carried nuclear waste in 120 barrels. Last month, on the basis of Mr Fonti’s rough directions, a survey vessel funded by the regional government found a ship at a depth of 500 metres some 12 miles off the port of Cetraro.

When the central government commissioned the Mare Oceano survey ship to carry out more detailed investigations last week they found that the suspected Cunski was actually the Catania, which went down in 1917, holed by a German torpedo.

Stefania Prestigiacomo, environment minister for the centre-right government, was clearly relieved at the outcome and accused Calabria’s centre-left regional government of being “hostile” towards Rome and having failed to deal with the matter responsibly.

Piero Grasso, head of the national anti-mafia directorate, told reporters that although authorities had called off the search for the Cunski their investigations would continue into environmental pollution at sea and on land. “But it is important to avoid irresponsible alarmism,” he added.

Investigations to date into the “mystery ships” have resulted in some findings. A court ruled that the Rigel, a merchant ship with suspicious cargo on board, was scuttled in 1987. Its wreck was never found. Scientists have also found radioactive contamination on land near where the Rosso, a rool-on roll-off vessel, ran aground in Calabria in 1990. In 1995, Natale de Grazia, a Coast Guard investigator, died in unusual circumstances while on a mission to research the ships. Colleagues believe he was poisoned.

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