Italy PM defends cabinet choice

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ROME - Silvio Berlusconi yesterday rejected European concern over neo-Fascists in his cabinet as the product of 'bad faith and disinformation' and said Italy's new government was fully committed to democracy.

In his first interview as Prime Minister, he also brushed off talk of conflicts of interest between public office and his vast media empire as laughable and said business associates he had put in top government posts were the best men for the job.

'All Italians can be absolutely sure that what they have before them is a government which believes in the fundamental principles . . . of freedom, democracy, respect and tolerance for others,' he told RAI state television.

Regarding foreign policy, he said his government would maintain Italy's traditional allegiance to Europe and Nato, adding: 'There is no doubt whatsoever about that.'

Alarm in Italy's European neighbours was raised when Mr Berlusconi named five members of the National Alliance to his cabinet, sworn in earlier yesterday. Three of the five ministers are from the National Alliance's core party, the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) which traces its roots to the Second World War dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Mr Berlusconi called the National Alliance a party of the right and said his government was centrist. 'The MSI is not in the government but a new political formation which is called the National Alliance.' He said members he had come to know 'have nothing to do with a distant past, to put it clearly with fascism. They are so far from fascism they can be considered anti-Fascists.'.

Gianfranco Fini, of the MSI, said on Wednesday that fascism 'finished in 1945' but he has refused openly to repudiate the past and last month called Mussolini 'the greatest statesman of the century'.

Belgian's Foreign Minister Willy Claes, a Socialist and president of the 32-nation Council of Europe's executive committee of ministers, said he bitterly regretted the MSI presence in government. He called them 'people who tend to neutralise human memory and who do not seem to have a democratic concept of Europe'.

Fascism no danger, page 21