Berlusconi may defy inquisitors says

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Arcore - The former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said yesterday he would probably refuse to appear before magistrates investigating alleged illegal party financing by his Fininvest company.

Mr Berlusconi, due to stand trial in January on corruption charges related to the Fininvest media empire, has accused Milan's anti-corruption investigators of waging a political campaign against him. Yesterday he said at his home outside Milan that he had been ordered by magistrates to appear for questioning next Thursday, but added: "I do not think I will present myself, as I do not see the need to meet people who are only trying to harm me."

The investigating magistrates want to interrogate Mr Berlusconi about Fininvest's acquisition of a film distribution group in 1988. They allege the company falsified its accounts to hide kickbacks from the deal. Fininvest denies any wrongdoing, and claims the $20m (pounds 13m) paid for the company was "totally legitimate."

The former prime minister's running battle with Milan's "Clean Hands" team broke new ground on Thursday when Judge Maurizio Grigo ordered the arrest of Giorgio Vanoni, finance director of foreign subsidiaries of Fininvest. Mr Vanoni is suspected of making a 10bn lire (pounds 400m) payment to the former Socialist Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi, in 1991 through a Panama-based company, called All Iberian, with links to Fininvest. Arrest warrants were also issued on Thursday for Mr Craxi, a fugitive in Tunisia, and two associates.

It is the first time investigators have alleged that money flowed directly from Mr Berlusconi's company to Mr Craxi, the most despised politician in Italy, and could cause severe damage to his public image in the build- up to an early general election, expected in the new year. Yesterday Mr Berlusconi said All Iberian did not belong to Fininvest. The payment was not directed at Mr Craxi, but was part of a contractual relationship with a Tunisian film producer called Tarek Ben Ammar.

Earlier Mr Berlusconi said that "everybody knows" he was a friend of Mr Craxi. "They also know," he added, "that Fininvest quite legally financed the Socialists and other parties through publicity spots and discounted advertising." Mr Berlusconi, prime minister for seven months last year, has pushed for early elections, claiming the unelected government of Lamberto Dini violates the will of the voters. He said he had no intention of standing down as leader of the centre-right Freedom Alliance.

n Milan - A court backlog forced the postponement to January of a corruption trial involving Italy's top fashion designers, AP reports.

Court officials said the trial of Giorgio Armani, Gianfranco Ferre, Krizia and Girolamo Etro was put off until 23 January. More than 40 other trials for alleged fiscal crimes were scheduled for Monday, when the designers were due to go on trial. They face allegations that their companies bribed tax inspectors to get favourable audits. Also charged is Santo Versace, Gianni Versace's brother and business manager, and 14 tax inspectors.