Seven-time Italian PM Giulio Andreotti dies at 94

ROME (AFP) - Mr Giulio Andreotti, a Machiavellian seven-time Italian prime minister who dominated the political scene for decades, died on Monday at the age of 94.

Mr Andreotti, a top figure in the once-dominant Christian Democratic party, died at his home in Rome. He had suffered ill health in recent years and was hospitalised last year with heart trouble.

A private funeral will be held on Tuesday in his local church for the staunchly pro-Catholic politician, who had close ties with the Vatican and was accused of links to the mafia.

His body will lie in state on Monday for friends and family in his apartment in the city centre overlooking the Tiber River and the Vatican beyond.

Mr Andreotti was "a leading protagonist for over 60 years of public life," said Prime Minister Enrico Letta, himself a former Christian Democrat.

Flags will be flown at half-mast at sporting events across Italy in honour of Mr Andreotti, who helped bring the Olympics to Rome in 1960.

Italy's parliament also held a moment of silence.

Rome's Corso Vittorio Emanuele, which leads from the centre to the Vatican, was closed off to the public by police so that mourners visiting Mr Andreotti's home could pay their respects.

A controversial figure associated with a period of political violence which rocked Italy in the 1970s, critics accused Mr Andreotti of Machiavellian behaviour and nicknamed him "The Untouchable".

He was "a highly disputed figure," fellow former premier Massimo D'Alema said, but three-time premier Silvio Berlusconi insisted "he knew how to defend democracy and freedom in difficult times."

"Italians used to say: 'There is no rose without thorns, no government without Andreotti'," he said.

Mr Andreotti was blamed for refusing to negotiate for his political rival Aldo Moro's freedom, when the latter was kidnapped - and later murdered - by the Red Brigades in 1978.

Mr Philip Willan, author of "Puppet Masters: The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy", said the former premier was "a very good illustration of the strange bedfellows created by the Cold War. Someone like him could be a great friend of the pope but also in contact with mafiosi, allegedly."

He was sentenced to 24 years in prison for ordering the murder of a journalist in 1979, but an appeals court cleared him in 2003 and he served no time in prison.

The journalist, Mino Pecorelli, had alleged that Mr Andreotti was in league with the Mafia.

Suspicions lingered, however, particularly after testimony provided by mafia turncoats who alleged that he had met with Cosa Nostra dons.

Mr Riccardo Barenghi, a former editor of leftist daily Il Manifesto, said: "He takes many secrets to the grave with him."

With his stooped figure and hangdog expression, Mr Andreotti was the butt of many jokes and was popularly dubbed "The Hunchback".

The Il Fatto Quotidiano daily said it was "the most feared and sought after archive" in Italy.

Mr Andreotti "was a very skilful operator and unscrupulous too. He was one of these people who knew an enormous amount but was never going to talk. It would have been like opening a lid on a Pandora's box," the author said.

Mr Andreotti also boasted relations with a succession of popes.

According to La Stampa daily, he met his first pontiff when as a child he snuck into a group of pilgrims meeting Pius XI.

As editor of the Concretezza magazine in 1958, on the eve of a papal conclave, he published an edition featuring the Patriarch of Venice, Angelo Roncalli, on the cover. Days later, Roncalli was elected to become Pope John XXIII.