By Wladimir Pantaleone
PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) - A longtime political ally, business associate and friend of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has left the country ahead of a final ruling on mafia collusion charges, a Palermo prosecutor said on Friday.
This week the Palermo court issued an arrest warrant for former Senator Marcello Dell'Utri, who co-founded Berlusconi's Forza Italia party in 1994, after prosecutors said they had evidence that he had already left the country and there was a "concrete danger" that he would not return for the verdict due next Tuesday, according to a court document dated April 8.
The document said he probably went abroad in the middle of March and that he was in Beirut on April 3. After he could not be tracked down, the court declared Dell'Utri a fugitive, Palermo prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio told Reuters.
"According to the latest information we have... he is in Lebanon," Patronaggio said. "Now we will start the procedure for tracking him down abroad, with help from the justice ministry and Interpol."
When contacted early on Friday, Dell'Utri's lawyer, Giuseppe Di Peri, said he did not know his client had left the country.
Later, Di Peri distributed a statement from Dell'Utri saying he went abroad for tests following an angioplasty a few weeks ago. He did not say where he was.
"I do not intend to hide from the result of the trial," Dell'Utri said in the statement. "I learned of the abnormal arrest warrant while I was already outside the country to get some rest and medical treatment."
A year ago, a Palermo appeals court convicted the 72-year-old Dell'Utri of acting as a go-between for the Sicilian mafia and the Milan business elite, including Berlusconi's companies, and sentenced him to seven years in prison. Dell'Utri, who denies any wrongdoing, appealed to the country's highest court.
In the statement issued on Friday, Dell'Utri said he was "confident" that the high court would rule in his favour.
In accordance with Italian law, the Sicilian-born Dell'Utri was free as he awaited the final ruling. If it is upheld, he would have faced immediate arrest.
Dell'Utri and four-time prime minister Berlusconi, 77, have been friends since they attended university together in Milan in the early 1960s. Berlusconi is not a defendant in the trial.
Dell'Utri ran the advertising company in Berlusconi's media empire from 1984 to 1995, and became a key adviser when Berlusconi entered politics two decades ago, helping him to establish his own political party from scratch.
Both Berlusconi and Dell'Utri have been dogged by legal troubles for most of their political careers, and both accuse magistrates of persecuting them for political reasons.
Berlusconi was expelled from parliament last year after being convicted for tax fraud and handed a four-year sentence - commuted to one. On Thursday, a Milan court was asked to order Berlusconi to serve his sentence doing community service aiding disabled elderly people.
(Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)