Italian PM all set to hang on

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ROMANO PRODI, Italy's Prime Minister, looks set to survive a cliff- hanger confidence vote in the Lower House tomorrow, after breakaway members of the Rifondazione Comunista party said that they would, after all, continue to back his centre-left government.

In a last-minute reprieve for the beleaguered prime minister, an unspecified number of Communist MPs pledged their support for his government, which is now widely expected to stay in office with a one or two-vote parliamentary majority.

"A new phase has begun," said Armando Cossutta, who stepped down as Rifondazione chairman earlier this week, after the party's policy committee withdrew its support from the Prodi government.

Mr Cossutta alone may not be able to provide enough parliamentary votes to see the government through tomorrow, but defections, abstentions and absences among non-government parties may give Mr Prodi the majority he needs.

Opposition leaders were frantically rallying their troops yesterday in a last-ditch effort to oust Mr Prodi. Absences for the ballot "will not be tolerated," said Silvio Berlusconi, the opposition right-wing Forza Italia party leader. He has demanded general elections to end the impasse caused by Rifondazione's defection.