ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, fresh from a controversy over his friendship with an 18 year-old woman, is now defending himself from allegations that female escorts were paid to attend parties at his homes.
Berlusconi, 72, says the accusations, which stem from an investigation by magistrates in the southern city of Bari, are "false trash" and part of a plot to taint his image ahead of next month's G8 summit, when he will host world leaders.
Major mainstream newspapers on Thursday ran several pages on Berlusconi's latest image problem, which was compounded by an interview in which his lawyer denied the allegations but said that even if true, he would not have committed any crime.
According to Corriere della Sera, Italy's leading mainstream newspaper, magistrates investigating a local businessman in southern Italy on suspicion of corruption discovered that he had paid female escorts to accompany him at dinner parties at Berlusconi's house.
Corriere said one of the three women told magistrates she spent the night at the large, two-floor residence in part of a former palace in central Rome which Berlusconi, who is going through a messy divorce, uses as his private residence.
The new uproar about his private life came a month after Italy was transfixed by his friendship with an 18-year-old aspiring model. He said he had no sexual relations with her.
"Storm Over Berlusconi's Parties," ran the headline in La Stampa newspaper of Turin.
Corriere della Sera said one woman had made videos in the residence with her cell phone and one editorialist said Berlusconi's lifestyle was opening himself up to blackmail.
Berlusconi's personal problems have given his opponents a rare chance to deal a blow to the prime minister, who dominates the political landscape and remains popular in opinion polls despite several scandals and the global downturn.
Nearly all Italian newspapers on Thursday ran a picture of one of the women with Berlusconi and local politicians during his visit to southern Bari last May. The woman ran for city council two weeks ago but was not elected.
TRASH, FALSEHOODS AND PLOTS
"Once more, newspapers are full of trash and falsehoods," Berlusconi said in a statement on Wednesday. "I am not going to let myself be conditioned by these aggressions ..." He later told aides that people were "organizing plots" against him.
"The G8 is coming he'll have to spend a lot of time denying that he was involved in an escort service rather than being a statesman with the likes of Obama," said James Walston, political science professor at the American University of Rome.
Berlusconi's lawyer, Nicolo Ghedini, told Corriere that even if the allegations were true, Berlusconi could not control who his male guests brought to the prime minister's residence and he would have been at the very most an "unwitting subject."
Ghedini said Berlusconi was "rich in money and likeability" and so did not need to pay women to come to his houses. "I think he can have great quantities for free," he told Corriere.
Ghedini himself came under attack by editorialists for saying that even if Berlusconi had had anything to do with the women he would only have been "an end user, and so not punishable." He later apologized for his choice of words.
According to La Repubblica, one of the women told the magistrates that she spent the night at the prime minister's Rome residence on the night of last year's U.S. elections.
Even one of Berlusconi's supporters, newspaper editor Giuliano Ferrara, said Berlusconi had to decide if he wanted to "drown in a happy ending made up of parties and beautiful girls" or restore some dignity to "a great political adventure."