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Italy's Masonic 'puppet master' dead at 96

A leading figure in a shadowy organization of Italian Freemasons has passed away at his Tuscan villa. Licio Gelli was implicated in a number of major Italian scandals over a period of decades.

Masonic "puppet master," ardent fascist and prison escapee Licio Gelli has died, his family announced on Wednesday. The 96-year-old ex-leader of a clandestine Freemason group had been implicated in nearly every big political and financial scandal in Italy for the last fifty years.

Born in the city of Pistoia in 1919, Gelli volunteered with Benito Mussolini's Blackshirts to assist Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War before returning to fight against the Allies in World War II, where he served as a liaison officer between his government and Nazi Germany.

He remained close to neo-fascist groups for decades, and played a role in an attempted military coup in the 1960s.

He led the Propaganda 2 (P2) Masonic Lodge after rising through the ranks of Italian Freemasonry beginning in the 1960s. After the secret right-wing group was discovered to have a connection to the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano bank, a scandal in which the Vatican bank and the Sicilian Mafia were also implicated, in 1981, Gelli entered into a long legal saga over the affair.

During that time, he escaped jail and fled to Switzerland for a time.

Lawyer: he called himself 'puppet master'

He was finally sentenced to 12 years in prison in 1998, which he served under house arrest at his villa due to his age, but not before escaping to the French Riviera after his sentencing and being re-arrested in Cannes.

The P2 has counted Italy's political, financial, and military elite among its members, including, allegedly, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

How deeply involved he was in the many scandals his life touched remains a matter of guesswork.

"He described himself as a puppet master, but it was a more of a joke than a statement of fact," said Raffaello Georgetti, one of Gelli's attorneys.

Gelli's first wife Wanda died in 1993, but he is survived by his second wife Gabriela, children, and grandchildren. He passed away on Tuesday in his Tuscan mansion. His funeral has been planned for Friday.

es/bw (AFP, dpa)

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