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Parmalat aide's death is apparently suicide

A longtime Parmalat employee who had been questioned by investigators plunged to his death in an apparent suicide, as authorities searched another bank office and again questioned the company's jailed founder about the dairy giant's massive fraud scandal.

Alessandro Bassi had worked closely with two jailed former company financial managers, Italian news reports said. Bassi had been questioned by investigators in the last days but wasn't considered a suspect, prosecutors said.

Meanwhile, prosecutors kept up their questioning of suspects, interrogating Parmalat founder Calisto Tanzi in a Milan hospital Friday after he was transferred there for medical tests.

Investigators have been concentrating on two fronts: Parmalat records and questioning of current or past company employees as well as scrutinizing documentation of banks which placed Parmalat bonds or gave the multinational food conglomerate credit.

Deutsche Bank offices were searched Friday because of a $445-million bond issue that the bank placed for Parmalat in September.

A spokeswoman for the bank in Frankfurt, Germany, said of the search: "We will continue to fully cooperate with the authorities."

Milan prosecutor Francesco Greco said the banks were not the targets.

Tanzi, who has a history of heart problems, was taken to a hospital Thursday evening after he felt tingling in an arm, said lawyer Fabio Belloni.

Bassi had been a close aide to two of the company's top financial figures, Fausto Tonna and Luciano Del Soldato, Italian state TV said. He plunged to his death from a bridge near Parma.

"We don't know whether the suicide was connected to the Parmalat scandal," Parma prosecutor Pietro Errede told reporters near the river bank. "We're considering the death a suicide."

Authorities were awaiting autopsy results before making an official ruling on the death.

Another Parma prosecutor, Vincenzo Picciotti, said that when Bassi was questioned Tuesday, "no element of responsibility emerged" for him.

"Bassi was in the condition, however, of being able to furnish useful elements to the investigation," Picciotti told reporters at Parma's courthouse Friday night.

Tanzi, 65, was arrested Dec. 27. This month, he was denied house arrest on grounds that he might flee the country or tamper with evidence.

Tanzi is one of 10 people arrested in the case. He has admitted to a $10-billion gap in the firm's balance sheet and told interrogators that up to $640-million was diverted from Parmalat to cover losses by his family's tourism businesses.

In Brazil, police are trying to determine whether Parmalat funds were hidden in that country or illegally moved abroad, while other investigations into the company's books and finances are expected to be launched.

Heavy expansion by Parmalat in South America, coupled with that continent's economic slump in recent years, are widely believed to have figured in Parmalat's shaky finances.