Sicily: 94 arrests at dawn over claims Mafia swindled the EU out of millions

A total of 94 people have been arrested in connection with allegations that the Sicilian Mafia has defrauded the European Union to the tune of £8.5m.

Dawn raids were held across the island on Wednesday by detectives who believe thousands of hectares of farmland fraudulently qualified for financial aid.

Prosecutors claim two Mafia clans claimed subsidies for land they did not own.

Among those arrested were the heads of the two families, several public officials who help farmers apply for EU aid, a local mayor, and an accountant.

Some 150 companies were also seized as part of the investigation.

In the arrest warrant, Judge Sergio Mastroeni wrote: "The Mafia (there) has such power that they took control of 15 hectares of land through a simple phone call. No threats were necessary.

"With the Mafia, you only have to say your name, if necessary mentioning the fact that you just got out of prison."

The judge believes the suspects managed to obtain the illicit funds with the help of "white-collar workers" who help them negotiate the bureaucratic world of EU funding.

In the past, farmers who refused to get involved with fraudulent practices reported being threatened by the Mafia.

The EU pays out about £45bn a year in subsidies to support agriculture and keep rural communities alive.

Previously, farmers who refused to be involved with fraudulent practices reported being threatened by the Mafia.

Teresa Bellanova, Italy's agriculture minister, said "the gravity of what has emerged is enormous" - and said the dawn raids show how mobsters, who are traditionally associated with drug trafficking, are evolving.

"It is also clear how damaging it is to take significant European resources away from good agriculture and quality businesses, which make up the majority (of firms) in eastern Sicily, and direct them towards Mafia gangs."