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Berlusconi on defensive over relationship buzz

THE story of Silvio Berlusconi's friendship with an 18-year-old woman has transfixed Italy and forced the prime minister onto the defensive as he leads his party into European elections and prepares to host a G8 summit.

Italy's opposition, media and even the Church have been hammering him to clear up the nature of his relationship with Noemi Letizia, an aspiring model. Berlusconi attended Letizia's 18th birthday party in Naples last month.

Berlusconi dominates the political landscape and remains popular despite the impact of the global crisis - Italy's economy shrank 1 percent in 2008, the worst contraction since 1975.

"A politician has a duty to respond and a duty to tell the truth," Dario Franceschini, head of the opposition Democratic Party which trails Berlusconi's conservatives by about 15 percentage points in polls, told a rally at the weekend.

Berlusconi, accused by Lario of "frequenting minors," insists nothing improper happened between him and the teenager who refers to him as "papi" (Daddy).

The saga has become so pervasive that Berlusconi has vowed to clear his name with a formal address to parliament, something he rarely does.

He says the opposition is trying to make political hay of the story to discredit him ahead of the June 6-7 European elections and the July 8-10 G8 meeting when he will host world leaders including United States President Barack Obama.

"He is rattled because he feels he is not in control. He obviously doesn't want to have Noemi on the front pages when he is meeting Obama," said James Walston, political science professor at the American University of Rome.


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