Berlusconi 'amazed' at attack but rivals blame PM for stoking violence

Premier to remain in hospital for 25 days after losing 'half a litre of blood'

Silvio Berlusconi yesterday spoke of his amazement that anyone would wish him ill, following the assault on Sunday night that put him in hospital.

The Prime Minister, who is being treated for facial wounds after the attack at the end of a political rally, told the priest at Milan's San Raffaele Hospital, Don Luigi Verzè, of his bafflement. "I wish everyone well, everyone," he said, according to Italian press reports. "I can't understand why they hate me now."

Mr Berlusconi's personal physician, Alberto Zangrillo, told reporters that the premier's injuries were more serious than initially believed, and that he had lost half a litre of blood after being struck with a heavy model replica of the city's cathedral.

Dr Zangrillo said the Prime Minister would need at least 25 days to recover, not 20, as had been forecast yesterday, and that he was in considerable pain having suffered a nasal fracture and two broken teeth. He added, however, that surgery would not be needed.

Meanwhile, Italian politicians of all persuasions warned that the country's already febrile political atmosphere was reaching boiling point after the assault. But they differed over where to apportion blame.

The Prime Minister's supporters, led by defence minister Ignazio La Russa, accused the left of fomenting "an atmosphere of hatred". But critics pointed out that in the rally that preceded the attack, the Prime Minister himself had railed at political opponents, unfriendly journalists and perceived enemies in the judiciary, shouting "Shame on you, shame on you!"

Rosy Bindi, an opposition politician and recipient of one of Berlusconi's sexist jibes, further increased political tensions when she said the prime minister "should not play the victim" and added that he was "one of the people who had created a climate of violence".

Antonio di Pietro, leader of a small opposition party and one of Berlusconi's most unforgiving critics, said his firm condemnation of the attack "cannot and must not justify and legitimate the total abandonment in which the government has left the weakest social segment." He went on: "I share the indignation of citizens who every day see a premier who blocks parliament to pass laws which serve him and only him, while millions of citizens lose their jobs and struggle to make ends meet."

However, messages of condolence arrived from many other political opponents, from the Vatican, and even from the father of Massimo Tartaglia, the man with mental health problems who attacked Mr Berlusconi.

Even the left-wing daily La Repubblica, which has led the exposé of the premier's sex life, deplored the attack. "Friends and enemies, partisans and opponents must show solidarity with Berlusconi," it said. "What is at stake is nothing less than liberty."

Mr Berlusconi's spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, said the Prime Minister had expressed concerns for his own safety shortly before the rally. "Do you feel the climate of violence, the climate of hatred? Don't you think something might happen?" Mr Berlusconi is said to have asked him.

While the political controversy raged, people were also asking how Mr Berlusconi's large security entourage could have allowed the attack to happen. Berlusconi, who loves to interact with crowds, was the victim of a similar assault in Rome in 2004 when a man hit him with a camera tripod.

The deputy mayor of Milan, Riccardo De Corato, said he was "furious" about Sunday's security breach and would raise the issue with the city's chief of police. The interior minister, Roberto Maroni, who has ordered a security review, said: "The Prime Minister could have been killed."

Mr Maroni also promised to crack down on a new anti-Berlusconi group that sprang up on Facebook, in honour of Berlusconi's attacker. Last night political pundits were predicting that the assault would boost sympathy for Berlusconi and help his poll ratings, which had been sliding after months of sex scandals.

The Italian press: View from the media

*There are moments in which we ought to abolish two words: "but", and "perhaps". Aggression against a person, in this case a prime minister, is one of those moments. Confronted by violence, weasel words cannot be accepted, let alone justifications. The day that Italian politics understands this it will be truly mature. The wounded, bloodied face of Silvio Berlusconi cannot but be shocking; one cannot imagine a serious person or one who likes to define him or herself as democratic who could have a different reaction. - Mario Calabresi, editor of La Stampa

*Political hatred is a monster which, once on the loose, is difficult to contain. Even if it is not armed with a systematic ideology, as is the case with true terrorism, even if it burns within an isolated brain (and one that is also sick, or so it seems) as happened with the aggression directed at Berlusconi last night, political hatred acts like a poison that intoxicates public discourse. It reduces the adversary to a target to be annihilated. - Pierluigi Battista, deputy editor of Corriere della Sera

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