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Italy's murky masonic leader Gelli, linked to decades of plots, dies

Maurizio Gelli (C) and his unidentified lawyer (hidden) leave a hospital cardiology service where his father Licio Gelli was transported after suffering a heart attack, September 11.

ROME (Reuters) - Licio Gelli, the former head of an outlawed secret masonic lodge linked to some of Italy’s biggest and murkiest scandals of the 20th century, has died, his family said. He was 96.

Gelli was the grandmaster of the shadowy Propaganda 2 (P2) group, which was founded in 1969 and used to be Italy’s most powerful secret organisation, boasting prominent politicians, business leaders and military officers as members.

Exposed in 1981, P2 was accused of conspiring with right-wing extremists and the Mafia to destabilise governments through bombings and violence, often blamed on extreme leftists.

Gelli was sentenced to 12 years in jail for fraud in connection with the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, whose boss Roberto Calvi -- known as “God’s banker” for his ties to the Vatican -- was found hanged under a bridge in London in 1982.

Gelli was also found guilty of obstructing justice during investigations into one of the darkest episodes in Italy’s recent past -- the 1980 explosion of a bomb at the Bologna train station which killed 85 people.

A Rome judge in 1995 linked Gelli with a 1970 plot for a military coup in Italy, but the case was shelved because a statute of limitations had kicked in, meaning the crime could no longer be prosecuted.

The P2 was also accused of using its considerable influence to stymie efforts to save former prime minister Aldo Moro, who was murdered by the Red Brigades leftist guerrilla group in 1978 after a 55-day kidnapping. The accusations were never proved.

At a news conference in 1999, Gelli said: “I am a fascist and will die a fascist”.

Writing by Crispian Balmer; editing by Philip Pullella and Gareth Jones