Berlusconi ally on the run ahead of mafia ruling

An ex-senator friend of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi is on the run after police issued an arrest warrant for him and ahead of a ruling next week in which he faces a seven-year sentence for ties to the Sicilian Mafia.

The anti-mafia prosecutor's office said Friday a warrant for Marcello Dell'Utri was issued on Tuesday and police have been searching for him since then.

"He is unreachable," it said in a statement.

A spokesman for the prosecutors told AFP Dell'Utri had still not been officially declared a fugitive but the authorities "have begun procedures" to seek his arrest internationally, although he said this would take time.

Dell'Utri himself issued a statement in which he did not reveal where he was but said that he had "no intention" of escaping arrest and was undergoing medical checks because of poor health.

The disappearance caused outrage in the political world, with far-leftist and former prosecutor Ignazio Ingroia saying that "allowing Dell'Utri to flee abroad was shameful and indecent for a civilised country".

The legal case against Dell'Utri has dragged on for two decades and is headed for a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court on April 15 after multiple appeals.

Prosecutors said they ordered his arrest this week because Dell'Utri, who has been a free man despite his trials, was only now considered a flight risk.

Italian media said that a bugged conversation between Dell'Utri's brother and a family friend contained in the arrest warrant revealed that the ex-senator was planning to fleet to Lebanon and could even be issued with a diplomatic passport by Guinea Bissau.

Dell'Utri headed up the advertising arm of Berlusconi's media business empire and helped his political debut with the foundation of the Forza Italia (Go Italy) party in the early 1990s.