msnbc.com news services
updated 12/16/2008 8:47:22 AM ET 2008-12-16T13:47:22

A suspected Mafia boss arrested Tuesday in a high-profile police raid has hung himself in his prison cell, police sources said Wednesday.

Gaetano Lo Presti, who was already convicted of mob-related crimes prior to his latest arrest, was found dead late last night in Pagliarelli prison in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, sources told Reuters.

He was one of the 99 people apprehended Tuesday suspected of trying to rebuild the top ranks of the Sicilian Mafia, which has been weakened by the arrests of powerful mob leaders.

Carabinieri police in Palermo said the operation there and in other Sicilian cities was one of the largest in recent years and gave investigators a picture of the new highest echelons of the Mafia. It also prevented possible bloodshed as bosses vied to control a new ruling commission to set strategy.

Latest blow to Cosa Nostra
It was the latest blow to the Cosa Nostra, whose "boss of bosses" Bernardo Provenzano was arrested in 2006. Provenzano's heir apparent, Salvatore Lo Piccolo, was apprehended in 2007.

The raids involved 1,200 police officers and helicopters.

"If that operation ... brought Cosa Nostra down to its knees, this prevented it from getting up again," Pietro Grasso, the national anti-Mafia prosecutor, told ANSA on Tuesday.

Lo Presti and the other suspects were accused of crimes including extortion, trafficking of arms and drugs and having mafia links.

Salvatore "Toto" Riina, the boss of bosses, famously headed once headed a ruling commission, known as the "cupola," until his arrest in 1993. The commission decided to carry out a strategy of all-out attack against the state that culminated with the back-to-back slayings of top anti-Mafia fighters Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992.

Commission pulled apart
Tuesday's operation — called Perseus, after the Greek mythological hero who beheaded Medusa — "severed all the strategically important heads of a new ruling structure that had to deliberate, as it once did, on all serious acts," Grasso said.

The current attempt to restore the commission was masterminded by a suspected mobster, Matteo Messina Denaro, who is among a handful of people vying to replace Provenzano, police said.

Messina Denaro is seen by investigators as a top candidate for the job after his main competitors were arrested. He remains at large.

More on: Mafia | Italy

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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