SAN LUCA, Italy Police arrested 32 suspected mafiosi on Thursday and were hunting for eight others linked to a deadly mob feud blamed for the execution-style killings of six Italians in Germany.
Camouflage-clad police backed by helicopters swooped into the southern Italian mountain village of San Luca, the epicenter of a 16-year-old feud inside the Calabrian underworld organization, the 'Ndrangheta, that has killed up to 20 people.
The latest six victims died in a hail of bullets on August 15 outside a pizzeria run by Calabrians in Duisburg, northwest Germany, where the 'Ndrangheta is believed to be well established.
Among the arrested was Giovanni Nirta, suspected head of a mob clan whose wife was shot dead last Christmas. Prior to his arrest, he strongly denied suggestions he ever sought revenge.
Achille Marmo and Giovanni Strangio, brothers of two of the Duisburg victims, were also among those arrested in and around San Luca. Strangio was a co-owner of the pizzeria where the men were killed, police said.
"The families that are fighting in Calabria are the same ones who fought in Germany," police colonel Antonio Fiano told Reuters.
But police refused to directly link the suspects to the murders themselves -- saying their investigation was into the larger mob feud that they believe led to the killings.
The suspects face charges including mob association, murder and arms trafficking.
"It's a strong and necessary response to break up the mob feud between opposing 'Ndrangheta clans, which has already provoked so much terror," Interior Minister Giuliano Amato said.
Italy's national anti-mafia prosecutor, Pietro Grasso, said the arrests would help "prevent further escalation of the feud".
Police, many armed with machine guns, were searching for underground bunkers after finding three suspects holed up in a secret annexe to a mobster's basement. A section of the wall to the mafia bunker opened by remote control.
Raids on other homes in the tiny village also revealed sophisticated security and surveillance systems.
Police also set up a series of roadblocks along the road out of San Luca, in case suspects tried to flee.
The feud is believed to have its roots in rancor over an egg-throwing incident during Carnival in 1991 that spiraled out of control.
The Calabrian mafia is estimated by Italian experts to have an annual turnover of nearly 36 billion euros ($49 billion), putting it on a par with some of the largest publicly quoted companies in Italy.
Much of its cash comes from trafficking cocaine, a trade which the 'Ndrangheta now dominates in Italy. It has outgrown other Italian mafias like its more famous Sicilian counterpart, the Cosa Nostra, and the Neapolitan Camorra.
German police, in Italy following up the Duisburg shootings, flew into the southern city of Reggio Calabria, near San Luca, on Thursday for briefings with their Italian counterparts.
(Additional reporting by Nicola Scevola and Alessandro Corda)