Confident Berlusconi rides out the storm

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ROME - Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, under fire from magistrates and facing demands that he distance himself from his business empire, told a stormy parliamentary session yesterday that he would press on with governing Italy.

He was boosted by a pledge of support from the Northern League leader, Umberto Bossi, the most awkward of his allies in the ruling conservative Freedom Alliance. 'This message is not only for the Chamber but for all Italians: there will be no government crises,' Mr Bossi told the lower house during a debate on the government.

Mr Berlusconi, oozing confidence despite his recent mishaps, had said earlier that the legitimacy of his fledgeling government was beyond question and that the only alternative to it was fresh elections. The media tycoon, who entered politics only in January, made clear he had no intention of stepping down after last month's clash with magistrates over pre- trial custody and the detention of his brother and business partner, Paolo, in a corruption case.

'Maybe I'm just an incurable optimist but I see nothing black in the day which is drawing to a close,' said Mr Berlusconi, in a debate broadcast live on national television. His speech drew thunderous applause from packed government benches but howls of derision from the opposition, one of whose members held up a piece of paper with the word 'Liar'.

Mr Berlusconi indicated he was exasperated with the dissent within his coalition and he warned Mr Bossi that he would not remain a hostage of the Northern League leader's continued sniping.

It was Mr Bossi who threw cold water on the Prime Minister's plan to distance himself from the family's Fininvest holding - a pounds 4bn- a-year empire embracing television, retailing, insurance and sports. 'If Bossi wants to be a kidnapper, he is free to do so . . . but he needs a willing hostage and this will never happen,' Mr Berlusconi said.

Mr Berlusconi's standing has fluctuated in recent opinion polls. But one released yesterday suggested that more than half of Italians had faith in him - a rise of 8 per cent since July.