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By ESPN Staff

Ex-Lazio chief Cragnotti under arrest

ROME/MONZA, Italy, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Ex-Lazio president Sergio Cragnotti, former head of insolvent food firm Cirio, was arrested by Italian police on Wednesday, judicial sources said.

Cirio, which was Lazio's majority owner until last August, defaulted on more than one billion euros ($1.27 billion) of bonds in late 2002.

Cirio's insolvency has since been dwarfed by a multi-billion euro accounting scandal at Italian dairy foods giant Parmalat, the parent company of Lazio's Serie A rivals Parma.

The twin failures of Cirio and Parmalat, which pulled the rug from under 165,000 Italian retail investors, according to press reports, have increased pressure on magistrates to tie up the Cirio inquiry and crack down on any fraud.

A lawyer for Cragnotti, arrested at his estate outside Rome, called the detention 'completely useless' and said it was prompted by political and media pressure after Parmalat.

In an arrest warrant obtained by Reuters on Wednesday prosecutors accused Cragnotti of favouring six banks when repaying debts. The financial transfers, made in 2000-02, were worth a total of just under 600 million euros, the warrant said.

Police swooped on 64-year old Cragnotti at his Rome estate in the early hours of Wednesday morning before plain clothes police officers escorted him to a prison in the capital.

Cragnotti invested millions in top players at Lazio during a decade long search for glory and the team finally delivered the 'scudetto' in 2000.

But Cragnotti, whose stake in Lazio has slipped to 2.9 percent from 43.7 percent, was forced to stand down last season as the financial problems at Cirio hit the football club.

He has been investigated for months over suspected fraud, false statements to the stock market and criminal bankruptcy.

Judicial sources said Cragnotti was arrested along with his son-in-law, Filippo Fucile, a former director general of Cirio Finanziaria, and his son Andrea Cragnotti, who also held a management role at the company.

Fucile and Cragnotti were also both executives at Lazio.

The three men are the first to be arrested in the probe.

Sergio Cragnotti, who bought Cirio in 1994 after he was caught up in an unrelated corruption scandal, denies wrongdoing.

In a recent interview he said that Cirio's collapse was triggered by a cash crunch after creditor banks failed to support it and not by fraud.