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Berlusconi looks vulnerable fighting sex scandal

JUST weeks ago Silvio Berlusconi appeared to have an ironclad grip on power. Now the Italian premier is looking suddenly vulnerable, with the heat coming from something almost unheard of in freewheeling Italy: a sex scandal.

Opposition politicians and newspapers yesterday kept up the pressure on Berlusconi, who has spent most of the past month defending himself against accusations from his wife that he had an inappropriate relationship with an 18-year-old model.

In the latest fallout from the scandal, Berlusconi has come under attack over his explanations for using a government airplane to fly friends, entertainers and starlets for parties at his vacation villa in Sardinia. The opposition yesterday said Berlusconi has nearly tripled the use of government flights from the previous administration.

The premier's office felt obliged this week to deny any misuse of a state airplane to fly friends to Sardinia after a consumer group complained - it said the added passengers did not increase costs.

But Berlusconi appears to be losing his teflon touch amid the growing public relations disaster: newspapers published photos this week of people disembarking from the government plane, identifying one young woman as a flamenco dancer and a man as a Neapolitan crooner.

Italians have long winked at the peccadilloes of their political leaders, taking it almost for granted that men in power would have the occasional fling and surround themselves with beautiful women.

The uproar is all the more surprising because of Italians' tolerant attitudes to sex and their respect for the private lives of politicians.

Italians were mystified that Bill Clinton's dalliance with a White House intern could produce such scandal.

But a combination of factors - sympathy for a spurned wife, Berlusconi's ongoing legal problems and upcoming European Parliament elections that energized an otherwise weak opposition - has kept the saga going.

The Italian press has not shied from the story, led by the left-leaning La Repubblica, which Berlusconi's estranged used to attack her husband.

The premier felt obliged to appear on national television to reject his wife's suggestions he had a sexual relationship with 18-year-old glamor girl Noemi Letizia, calling it a "lie" and demanding she apologize.


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