ROME (Reuters) - Francesco Saverio Borrelli, the Italian magistrate who headed the "Clean Hands" corruption investigations in the early 1990s that swept away an entire political class, has died, his family said on Saturday.

He was 89 and died in a Milan hospital.

As the lead prosecutor in Italy's biggest political scandal since World War Two, Borrelli headed a probe which led to the arrest of hundreds of business and political figures and destroyed the careers of many.

While the Clean Hands pool of prosecutors, which also included Antonio Di Pietro, were hailed as heroes by many Italians, people caught up in the affair still resent what they saw as a heavy-handed or even politically motivated crusade.

Italy's establishment was swift to praise Borrelli's achievements on Saturday.

"(He was a) magistrate of the highest order, committed to the affirmation of the supremacy and respect of the law, who faithfully served the republic," President Sergio Mattarella said in a statement.

Critics were less kind: "He led a coup against the state," Bobo Craxi, son of former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, was quoted as saying by Italian news agencies.

Craxi fled Italy in 1994 after being placed under investigation for graft by the Clean Hands team. He was convicted in absentia and died in self-imposed exile in 2000.

As the old order collapsed, media mogul Silvio Berlusconi entered politics and was elected prime minister in 1994. But his rise to power only exacerbated the conflict between the judiciary and politicians, with the Clean Hands team turning its sights on Berlusconi's large business empire.

In a famous speech to mark his retirement in 2002, Borrelli urged magistrates and judges to "resist, resist, resist," echoing the rallying cry of an Italian general to his troops during a critical phase of World War One.

Berlusconi made no immediate comment after Borrelli's death was announced.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; editing by Clare Fallon)

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