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Berlusconi rejects prostitute claims as ‘lies and slander’

September 11, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome and Giulia Segreti in Gubbio

Published: September 11 2009

Silvio Berlusconi denied he had paid prostitutes for sex as a press conference with the Spanish prime minister yesterday turned into a grilling about his private life and political future.

“Absolute lies and absolute slander,” Italy’s billionaire prime minister replied when asked about the latest allegations, published by Italian newspapers.

Newspapers reported that a businessman under investigation in Bari for corruption and procuring prostitutes had paid escorts and other women to attend 18 parties at Mr Berlusconi’s private villa in Rome.

Some of the women named in the reports on Wednesday, which cited alleged testimony given to investigators by Giampaolo Tarantini, the businessman, have also denied the accusations.

“I have never paid a lira or a euro for sexual services,” Mr Berlusconi, 72, told the press conference in Sardinia. To pay for sex would take away the “joy of conquest”. He said Mr Tarantini had introduced beautiful women as his friends.

Responding to a question on whether he should resign, Mr Berlusconi said he was the “record man” by being the longest-serving prime minister “and by a long stretch the best” in Italian history.

José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain’s prime minister, looked on stone-faced as his counterpart responded to the Rome correspondent of El Pais, the Spanish daily that is being sued by Mr Berlusconi for publishing photographs of his guests, some naked, at his villa in Sardinia. Mr Berlusconi is also suing two Italian newspapers for libel.

Although Mr Berlusconi appears to be weathering the storm of scandal inside Italy – which began when Veronica Lario, his wife, accused him of “frequenting minors” and asked for a divorce – associates say he is incensed by coverage in the foreign media and his denigration on the international stage.

Massimo Donadi, a parliamentarian for the opposition Italy of Values party, said: “To listen to the head of the Italian government denying having had relations with prostitutes at an international summit is embarrassing and surreal.”

Mr Berlusconi’s postsummer counter-offensive against his opponents in the media has been joined by attacks led by Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, on critics within the Roman Catholic church and even his own political allies.

Gianfranco Fini, former leader of the rightwing National Alliance which merged with Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party last March, yesterday responded with a robust speech criticising the new party for a lack of internal debate.

Mr Fini also criticised the centre-right government over its policy of forcibly returning African refugees who tried to reach Italy from Libya by sea.

“More debate and more internal democracy does not undermine the [party] leadership but reinforces us,” Mr Fini told a party conference in Gubbio.

Mr Fini, speaker of parliament, is seen as one of several leading contenders to succeed Mr Berlusconi who is 73 this month but still has almost four years left in office.

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