Leading suspect escapes

But Matteo Messina Denaro, whom the authorities say was vying for the top post in the organisation and masterminded the attempt to restore the ruling commission, remained at large and was now seen as a top candidate for the job after his main competitors were arrested.

The Sicilian Mafia has been trying to overcome disarray in its ranks ever since top mobster Bernardo Provenzano was arrested in April 2006.

Some of those arrested smiled defiantly as they were led away [AFP]
Many of his encrypted notes were cracked, shedding light on Cosa Nostra's organisation and leading to the arrests of some of his closest aides.

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

The operation "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 arrests targeted 89 suspected bosses of local crime families and rank-and-file mobsters intent on setting up the commission, which was to make Cosa Nostra's important decisions including possible attacks, police said.

Some suspects remained at large.

The raids on Tuesday involved 1,200 police officers, helicopters and dog units, with police officers besieging homes, masked officers climbing gates and tearing down walls.

The suspects, some grinning defiantly, were charged with Mafia association, extortion, arms and drug trafficking.