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'Innocent' sunbathing photos irk Berlusconi

Spanish newspaper publishes censored pictures

Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, played down as "innocent" photographs published in a Spanish newspaper that show topless women and a naked man sunbathing at his seaside villa. He protested, however, that their publication invaded his privacy.

Mr Berlusconi's colourful private life, which has prompted investigation into his use of state planes to airlift party guests to his Sardinia mansion, has become an explosive issue ahead of the European elections; Italians are due to vote on Sunday.

Publication of the photos was blocked in Italy, but Mr Berlusconi was powerless to prevent the Spanish daily El Pais from publishing five photos from a weekend break he organised.

Under the headline "The photos vetoed by Berlusconi", two pictures show him walking in the garden accompanied by various women, and a woman sunbathing topless. Another shows a naked man by the pool. The faces of Mr Berlusconi's guests are pixellated.

Mr Berlusconi countered when challenged: "Do you wear a jacket and tie when taking a shower? These are people bathing in a Jacuzzi inside a private house ... These are innocent photos. There is no scandal."

El Pais defended its action in a blistering editorial: "Publication of photographs of [Mr Berlusconi's] private parties is not intended to impugn his morals as a citizen, but to demonstrate that, as Prime Minister, he seeks to convert the sphere of democratic politics into a mere extension of his friendships."

Mr Berlusconi's lawyers said yesterday that he would be taking legal action against El Pais.

The photos, by the Italian photographer Antonello Zappadu, were seized last week by a Rome court after Mr Berlusconi said they had been taken without his permission from outside the villa grounds. Mr Zappadu has been watching Mr Berlusconi's luxurious mansion for some time, and says he saw the Prime Minister fly in most weekends with friends, showbiz stars, dancers and female television announcers.

The photos, taken last August, prompted investigations into whether Mr Berlusconi improperly used state planes for these weekend breaks.

The furore compounds the scandal over Mr Berlusconi's involvement with the Neapolitan model Noemi Letizia. His appearance at her 18th birthday party last month prompted his wife to start divorce proceedings.

Mr Berlusconi said yesterday there was nothing "spicy" about the relationship and promised to resign if it were shown he had lied. "If anyone can demonstrate that the Prime Minister perjured himself, the Prime Minister would have to resign and go into hiding the very next minute," he said.