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Berlusconi calls for early election

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's main coalition ally said early elections were the only way out of Italy's political crisis, as the premier and his estranged partners kept up an acrimonious war of words.

Mr Berlusconi has challenged former ally Gianfranco Fini's breakaway group to back a five-point programme at a confidence vote next month or face a vote by December.

Mr Fini's camp retorted at the weekend that it would not accept ultimatums. Umberto Bossi, the outspoken leader of the separatist Northern League party in the ruling coalition, said Italy should now head to the polls, no matter what the outcome of September's confidence vote.

"Berlusconi has said that he has a programme to put to parliament. If they vote in favour, good. Otherwise we go to the polls," Mr Bossi was quoted as saying by newspapers yesterday.

"I think we must to go the polls either way. It seems unlikely that things can continue like this."

Mr Bossi, whose party is expected to make gains in its home base in Italy's north if elections are held, later told reporters that an election must be held without delay.

Mr Berlusconi also appeared to be preparing his People of Freedom party's rank and file for the prospect of elections.

"We need to reorganise the presence of the People of Freedom on our territory," he said in an audio message to his Promotori della Liberta group of party activists.