EU moves to save crumbling Pompeii, protect it from mafia

ROME, Feb 6 (Reuters) - The European Union launched a 105 million euro ($142.05 million) restoration of the Roman city of Pompeii on Wednesday, and said it would seek to protect conservation funds from the mafia.

The project began a day after police arrested a restorer on suspicion of pocketing hugely inflated fees for work at the crumbling Roman town, a world heritage site that was declared to be in a state of emergency in 2008 due to its deterioration.

The money will pay for a new drainage system, the reinforcement of some structures and staff training and includes "a variety of measures to protect itself from the influence of organised crime - the Camorra - which infects many parts of the region," the European Commission said.

Naples, the largest city in southern Italy, 25 km (15 miles) from Pompeii, is home to the Camorra, the local mafia which thrives on trafficking, extortion, and government contract frauds.

Police are investigating former managers at Pompeii whom they suspect of paying inflated prices for restoration work. One contract originally priced at 449,882 euros ended up costing almost 5 million euros, and many works were not essential, prosecutors said.

Italy declared a state of emergency in Pompeii in 2008 after archaeologists complained about poor upkeep, mismanagement and lack of investment.

The town, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius volcano in 79 AD until its rediscovery in 1748, which attracts 2.3 million tourists a year, suffered further serious damage in torrential rainfall in 2011.

The EU's regional fund spent 7.7 million euro on restoration at Pompeii from 2000-2006, but today just five individual sites are open due to damage, compared to 64 in 1956.

EU Regional Affairs Commissioner Johannes Hahn said he had taken an interest in launching the restoration plan since the 2010 collapse of the House of the Gladiators, used by the warriors before fights in the nearby amphitheatre.

Organised crime generates an annual turnover of 140 billion euros in Italy, according to a 2012 study by anti-crime group SOS Impresa, generating profits equivalent to 7 percent of Italy's national output.

The EU did not say how it would prevent mafia involvement in future restoration projects at the site. ($1 = 0.7392 euros) (Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)