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 he might abscond before the verdict due next Tuesday.
When police could not track him down, the court declared Dell'Utri a fugitive, according to a court document dated April 8. It said he probably left the country in the middle of March and had information that he was in Beirut on April 3.
"According to the latest information we have... he is in Lebanon," prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio told Reuters. "Now we will start the procedure for tracking him down abroad, with help from the justice ministry and Interpol."
Dell'Utri's lawyer, Giuseppe Di Peri, said he did not know his client had left the country.
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 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)