I'm no saint: Berlusconi breaks silence

Italian Prime Minister tries to laugh off sex-tape allegations

In his first comments since the escort tape scandal broke, the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi yesterday attempted to laugh off embarrassing revelations that have again put his sexual appetite at the centre of international debate. At the opening of a motorway construction site near the northern city of Brescia, he declared: "I am not a saint, you've all understood that – I hope the people at La Repubblica understand it too," referring to the left-leaning newspaper which has led the investigation into his dalliances with young starlets and showgirls.

On Tuesday, La Repubblica and its sister publication, the news weekly L'Espresso, published the latest conversations taped surreptitiously by Patrizia D'Addario which she claims prove that she and Mr Berlusconi had a sexual relationship. Ms D'Addario, a high-class escort, claims she and other women were paid to attend parties at Mr Berlusconi's residence in Rome.

Mr Berlusconi's lawyer, Nicolo Ghedini, denied the authenticity of the tapes, calling them "completely improbable and the fruit of invention".

In one recording, Giampaolo Tarantini, the Bari businessman who is said to have procured prostitutes for the parties, is heard telling Ms D'Addario about the 72-year-old Prime Minister's predilection for unprotected sex.

In another, Mr Berlusconi is purportedly heard telling Ms D'Addario that he is waiting for her on what he described enigmatically as "Putin's bed".

But yesterday Mr Berlusconi appeared determined to brazen the scandal out in his usual way. Noting that the new Brescia-Milan motorway was due to be opened in 2013, when his mandate ends, he quipped: "We will all still be around, because how could the Italians do without us?" Last night, the Industry Minister, Claudio Scajola, told reporters: "Even with this defamatory, awful, campaign that is damaging the image of our country, Silvio Berlusconi remains the leader with the broadest support in Europe."

In some quarters the alleged proof of Mr Berlusconi's "drill-like" sexual prowess contained in the tapes may actually have reinforced his support. But the tide of sleaze does seem to be taking its toll on his popularity.

An opinion poll published by La Repubblica on Tuesday showed his approval rating falling below 50 per cent for the first time since he won a landslide election victory last year. The Catholic vote is thought to be looking particularly precarious – one reason, perhaps, why he is said to be contemplating a pilgrimage to the shrine of Padre Pio in the far south.

Meanwhile, Emilio Marzano the chief prosecutor in the southern city of Bari, leading the investigation into the activities of Mr Tarantini – who is now suspected of supplying cocaine, as well as call girls – said he was in possession of another six tapes.

This raised the possibility that the tapes might also find their way into the hands of the press. Mr Marzano denied that any of the sex tapes had been leaked from his office.

Ms D'Addario says that she released the recordings because Mr Berlusconi had reneged on a promise to help her with a family building project. None of the tapes released so far bear out the claim that he made such a promise.

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