Berlusconi pressures minister

ROME - Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, demanded yesterday that his Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, withdraw comments on a highly controversial government decree on corruption, or resign. Mr Berlusconi made his demand amid statements by judicial officials that 15 per cent of the 1,050 people released from prison between Thursday and Saturday as a result of the Biondi decree were wanted for alleged corruption offences.

Mr Maroni, a member of the federalist Northern League, said on Saturday he would resign from the government unless Mr Berlusconi agreed to scrap a decree, passed on Wednesday, which limits magistrates' powers to detain suspects.

'The minister's comments to the press bear no relation to the truth and they constitute an offence against the cabinet and the prime minister,' said Mr Berlusconi in Rome.

In interviews, notably with yesterday's La Stampa, Mr Maroni said he was 'mistakenly persuaded' by his government colleagues to approve the decree. He believed the decree had been passed in order to hinder the two-year-old 'Clean Hands' inquiry into allegations of widespread corruption among Italian politicains and business leaders.

For his part, Mr Berlusconi has made it clear he believes Mr Maroni's loyalty should lie with the coalition government, not his party. 'The tribal rights represented by the old hegemony of political parties are no longer acceptable,' he said. 'I am waiting either for a letter from Maroni completely withdrawing his comments or for his resignation as a minister,' Mr Berlusconi added.

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